Thursday, December 27, 2007


CIVIL RIGHTS ACTS The term Civil Rights Act has been used no less than eight times since 1866 to describe legislative meas­ures adopted by the United States Congress to protect and guarantee African American civil rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, for example, was designed to protect freedmen against southern black codes and other discriminatory measures. In ad­dition, the 1866 act stated that "all persons born in the United States ... are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States," and as such all were entitled to equal treatment in rights and privileges. This section of the act was later incor­porated into the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, thereby over­turning the Dred Scott decision of 1857 which had denied the status of citizenship to blacks.

Passed by Congress on March 1, 1875, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed that "all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment" of public accommodations such as theaters, inns, hotels and forms of public conveyance. The act carried a fine for violation of not less than $500 and not more than $1,000, or imprison­ment for thirty days to one year. In 1883, however, the Supreme Court of the United .States declared this Act unconstitutional, arguing that Congress did not have the authority to regulate the social mores of private individuals.

It was not until 1957 that Congress once again addressed itself to the plight of African Americans in their attempt to secure civil equality before the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 prohibited any action which would infringe upon or deny to persons the right to vote in federal elections, authorizing the Attorney General to bring suit when such persons were denied their constitutional right to vote. The 1957 act also created the Civil Rights Commission and established a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice. Although this legislation was criticized by many as being a token attempt to deal with a serious national problem, its significance lies in the fact that it re­presented a reversal of the federal policy of laissez faire in the realm of civil rights which had existed since 1875.

The Civil Rights Act of 1960 reenforced the 1957 legislation by providing for court enforcement of voting rights and requir­ing that voting records be preserved. Additionally, in an at­tempt to guarantee that school desegregation orders were en­forced, the act contained limited criminal penalty provisions relating to bombing and to the obstruction of federal court orders.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was undoubtedly the most com­prehensive and significant piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress. Despite an extended southern filibuster, sup-
porters of the legislation had sufficient strength to muster the necessary votes for passage on July 2, 1964. This act prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations and in programs receiving federal assistance. In addition, discrimination by employers and unions was prohibited; an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established; and the enforcement apparatus of voting laws and school and public facilities deseg­regation orders were significantly strengthened.

Three additional legislative measures since 1964 occasionally have been referred to as Civil Rights Acts. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, discussed elsewhere in this book, strengthened pen­alties for interference with voting rights, while congressional legislation in 1968 and 1970, respectively, prohibited housing discrimination in most cases and amended and extended the Voting Rights Act of 1965. See also: CIVIL RIGHTS CASES, CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION and VOTING RIGHTS ACT.

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