Civil Rights Act of 1960 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The passage of the relatively weak Civil Rights Act of 1960 demonstrated the resistence to significant civil rights reform in the United States, but it also presaged the additional protections for voting rights that would be contained in the stronger Voting Rights Act, passed five years later.

Summary of Event

The Fifteenth Amendment Fifteenth Amendment Constitution, U.S.;Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1870, was designed to protect the right of African Americans to vote. The amendment simply says: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Officials in the Southern states, however, found numerous ways to disfranchise black voters without violating the Fifteenth Amendment, such as the literacy test, poll tax, grandfather clause, and white primary. As a result of these voting barriers, most African Americans were eliminated as voters, in spite of what the Fifteenth Amendment was designed to do. Civil Rights Act of 1960 African Americans;voting rights Voting rights;African Americans [kw]Civil Rights Act of 1960 (May 6, 1960) [kw]Rights Act of 1960, Civil (May 6, 1960) Civil Rights Act of 1960 African Americans;voting rights Voting rights;African Americans [g]North America;May 6, 1960: Civil Rights Act of 1960[06510] [g]United States;May 6, 1960: Civil Rights Act of 1960[06510] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 6, 1960: Civil Rights Act of 1960[06510] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 6, 1960: Civil Rights Act of 1960[06510] [c]Social issues and reform;May 6, 1960: Civil Rights Act of 1960[06510] Dirksen, Everett Eastland, James Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;civil rights Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights Russell, Richard, Jr. Smith, Howard W.

The civil rights bills of the late 1950’s and the 1960’s were designed to make the Fifteenth Amendment enforceable. Since the end of Reconstruction, Congress had passed only one civil rights bill, in 1957. Civil Rights Act of 1957 The 1957 law sought to empower the federal government to protect voting rights by seeking injunctions against voting rights violations. In reality, the 1957 law was so weak that only a few suits were brought by the Department of Justice against the illegal practices of voting officials. The 1957 Civil Rights Act established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Commission on Civil Rights, U.S. , which was given the authority to investigate civil rights abuses. The commission could draw national attention to civil rights problems and recommend legislation to Congress, but it had no enforcement powers. African Americans and civil rights supporters realized that something substantial was needed to protect black voting rights.

In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced a seven-point civil rights program. Three parts of the bill dealt with education and school desegregation, the most significant provision being the attempt to make it a crime to interfere with court-ordered desegregation. The bill requested a two-year extension of the Civil Rights Commission and contained several other provisions to combat economic discrimination. The only section of the law that involved voting rights was the provision that states must preserve voting records for three years. This provision was needed to prove whether there was a pattern or practice of discrimination in voting.

Conspicuously missing from the Eisenhower bill was a request that Congress authorize the attorney general to bring civil proceedings to protect voting rights. This provision, known as Title III, had been the heart of the administration’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. Title III would have allowed the federal government to prevent interference with civil rights instead of only being able to punish such interference after the fact. Intense Southern opposition to Title III forced the administration to abandon the provision in the 1957 Civil Rights Act, as Eisenhower believed that Congress was not ready to incorporate Title III in the administration’s new bill.

A subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary House Committee on the Judiciary , comprising mostly Northern civil rights supporters, strengthened the Eisenhower bill and restored Title III. The full Judiciary Committee, containing many Southern opponents of civil rights, quickly gutted most of the stronger sections passed by the subcommittee. The weakened bill was passed by the Judiciary Committee and forwarded to the important House Committee on Rules House Committee on Rules . The Rules Committee, chaired by Howard W. Smith, a Virginia segregationist, did not act on the bill until civil rights supporters threatened to discharge the bill from the Rules Committee’s jurisdiction. The Democratic Study Group Democratic Study Group , a newly formed organization consisting of liberal Democrats, led the movement to free the bill from the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee finally sent the civil rights bill to the floor of the House for consideration by the entire House.

Southern Democrats led much of the opposition to the bill. Opponents contended that the bill went too far in protecting voting rights and encroached on the rights of states to control the election process. Representative William Colmer Colmer, William , a Democrat from Mississippi, said that “even in the darkest days of Reconstruction, the Congress never went as far as the proponents of this legislation, in this 1960 election year, propose to go.” After defeating numerous Southern amendments to weaken an already weak bill, the House voted 311 to 109 to approve the civil rights bill and send it to the Senate.

The United States Senate has often been the burial ground of civil rights laws, especially during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s. This was primarily the result of two factors. First, Southern Democrats, by virtue of their seniority, controlled many key committees, including the Committee on the Judiciary Senate Committee on the Judiciary , to which civil rights legislation, by jurisdiction, must be referred. Second, Southern senators were skillful in the use of legislative tactics, such as the filibuster, to kill legislation.

The Eisenhower bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Democratic senator James Eastland of Mississippi. Eastland, a staunch segregationist, refused to act on the bill. Only as a result of a parliamentary maneuver undertaken by Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen was the bill brought to the floor of the Senate for debate.

Southern senators, led by Democrat Richard Russell, Jr., of Georgia, organized a filibuster Filibusters . All Southern senators participated in the filibuster, with the exception of the two senators from Tennessee and the two senators from Texas. Supporters of the civil rights bill attempted to end the lengthy filibuster by invoking cloture, which required two-thirds of the Senate to vote to stop the filibuster. When the cloture vote took place, only forty-two of the one hundred senators voted to stop the filibuster. The civil rights supporters not only failed to get the two-thirds vote required but also failed to muster a simple majority.

The defeat of cloture meant that the Southern Democratic senators had won and could dictate the terms of the final bill. The final, watered-down version of the bill contained little that would protect the voting rights of African Americans. The most significant provision authorized federal judges to appoint federal referees to assist African Americans in registering and voting if a pattern or practice of discrimination was found. The Senate passed the weakened bill by seventy-one to eighteen, and President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on May 6, 1960. The fact that only two other individuals were present when Eisenhower signed the bill into law testifies to its legislative insignificance.


Perhaps the weakness of the 1960 Civil Rights Act was its main legacy. The law proved to be unable to cope with many problems confronting African Americans in the South. Many African Americans who attempted to register or vote lost their jobs, were subjected to violence, or were victimized by double standards or outright fraud on the part of voting officials. The impotence of the 1960 Civil Rights Act to deal with these issues, combined with the lack of progress in increasing the number of African American voters in the South, forced Congress to pass the powerful Voting Rights Act in 1965. This legislation would forever transform the political landscape of the South, and its consequences have continued to be felt. Civil Rights Act of 1960 African Americans;voting rights Voting rights;African Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abernathy, Charles F. Civil Rights and Constitutional Litigation: Cases and Materials. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 2000. Somewhat technical, but an interesting approach to the interplay between congressional and judicial sources of civil rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, Daniel M. A Bill Becomes a Law: Congress Enacts Civil Rights Legislation. New York: Macmillan, 1966. Case study of the passage of the 1960 Civil Rights Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Earl, and Merle Black. The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Examines how presidential politics has changed in the South, primarily as a result of the passage of civil rights laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Steven F. In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965-1982. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Investigates how civil rights and voting rights laws have impacted Southern politics and race relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roosevelt, Eleanor. “Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1960.” In Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt, edited by Allida M. Black. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. The response to the Civil Rights Act of 1960 by the former First Lady and civil rights supporter. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tate, Katherine. From Protest to Politics: The New Black Voters in American Elections. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Demonstrates how U.S. politics in the 1990’s has been influenced by the policies of prior decades.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whalen, Charles, and Barbara Whalen. The Longest Debate: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1985. A former member of Congress provides an inside view of the politics surrounding the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights

Greensboro Sit-Ins

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

Poll Taxes Are Outlawed

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

Categories: History