© 2023 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A Legislative Stepping Stone For Civil Rights

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

On May 6, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the second of four civil rights acts that serve as the foundation of federal civil rights statutes in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Beginning in the 1950s, civil rights advocates had begun pressuring Congress to protect African American civil and voting rights. In 1957, Eisenhower hesitantly signed the first civil rights act since Reconstruction into law. While this act gave Congress the power to enforce voting rights, Southern states took advantage of loopholes and vague language to continue disfranchising African Americans and resist school desegregation.

Three years later, the 1960 Civil Rights Act closed these loopholes by strengthening congressional power to enforce school desegregation. It also increased the FBI’s power to investigate racial violence, gave the Attorney General power to examine federal election records, and extended the Civil Rights Commission’s mandate to oversee elections in voting districts that had historical records of disfranchisement.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1960 established greater enforcement powers for the federal government, its limitations—in comparison to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—show the hesitancy of the Eisenhower Administration to extend federal civil rights protections into the states. And by addressing only civil rights violations based on race and color, the 1960 act reveals the limited scope of civil rights protections imagined by politicians.

Just four years later, not only would the 1964 Civil Rights Act extend the enforcement capabilities of the federal government, but it would also expand civil rights protections to include religion, sex and national origin. By examining the 1960 Civil Rights Act, we can see that our understanding of civil rights and civil rights protections has evolved, and continues to evolve, over time.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.