Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Congress, with bipartisan support, created the Commission on Civil Rights to investigate and issue reports on violations of voting and other constitutional rights.

Summary of Event

For its first three years, the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower was silent on the civil rights issue. The president believed in limiting the powers of government and did not support integration. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that legal segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law, Eisenhower argued that he should not force change upon the South. He believed that white attitudes in the South could not be changed by Supreme Court decisions and that he, as president, should not enforce laws that did not reflect majority opinion. Few members of the White House staff appeared aware of conditions in the southern states. Eisenhower, for example, expressed surprise when he was told only 7,000 out of 900,000 African Americans in Mississippi were qualified to vote under that state’s registration requirements. Commission on Civil Rights, U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1957 Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights [kw]Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights (Sept. 9, 1957) [kw]Commission on Civil Rights, Congress Creates the (Sept. 9, 1957) [kw]Civil Rights, Congress Creates the Commission on (Sept. 9, 1957) [kw]Rights, Congress Creates the Commission on Civil (Sept. 9, 1957) Commission on Civil Rights, U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1957 Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights [g]North America;Sept. 9, 1957: Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights[05550] [g]United States;Sept. 9, 1957: Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights[05550] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 9, 1957: Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights[05550] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 9, 1957: Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights[05550] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 9, 1957: Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights[05550] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 9, 1957: Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights[05550] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;civil rights Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;on Senate rules[Senate rules] Brownell, Herbert, Jr. Russell, Richard, Jr. Javits, Jacob K. Rayburn, Sam

The 1956 presidential election changed Eisenhower’s mind. He received almost half of the votes of African Americans, a higher share than any Republican presidential candidate since 1932, and saw a chance to increase his party’s electoral support from African Americans in succeeding elections. In his 1957 state of the union address State of the union address;1957 , he called for passage of a voting rights package that included creation of a bipartisan commission on civil rights. On March 9, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., presented a four-point program to Eisenhower’s cabinet that outlined the commission’s responsibilities and structure, added an assistant attorney general for civil rights to the Justice Department, authorized the attorney general to seek injunctions from federal judges to prohibit civil rights violations, and allowed the attorney general or aggrieved individuals to sue in federal court if voting rights were denied. Recognizing that white southerners would not be likely to vote to condemn their own, Brownell’s proposal called for trials without juries for defiance of the law. The cabinet agreed to send this proposal to Congress.

The U.S. House of Representatives quickly passed the four-point program by a vote of 282-226. The U.S. Senate had not passed a civil rights bill since 1875, and southerners stood prepared to filibuster another proposal. Obstructing passage was Rule 22 Rule 22 , calling for a two-thirds vote of the Senate to end any debate. A bipartisan attempt to change the rules failed, though proponents argued that the new Senate was not bound by old rules. Vice President Richard M. Nixon supported this view, suggesting that any rule passed by one Congress that tried to bind a future Congress was unconstitutional. The Senate voted 55-38 not to change Rule 22.

Getting the bill to the floor required the adroit leadership of Democratic majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson. Normally, a voting rights bill would have ended up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Mississippi Democrat James Eastland Eastland, James , an enemy of civil rights legislation. To avoid certain death in that committee, Johnson allowed the House bill to be brought directly to the floor for debate and amendments. To gain southern support, he argued that some bill was necessary and that a weak bill, such as the one offered by the Eisenhower administration, was preferable to a more radical one that might be proposed if the current legislation were defeated.

Southerners in the Senate tried to weaken the House bill still further. Richard Russell, Jr., led the opposition. He attacked the section of the bill authorizing the government to seek federal court injunctions to enforce equal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Russell said this would allow use of military force to integrate public schools, a question very much on the minds of southerners after the Brown decision. Russell met with Eisenhower to discuss his views. He raised the issue of local control of education and the threat to that American tradition posed by the 1957 legislation. Eisenhower apparently found Russell’s argument compelling, as he later told a news conference that he would like to see that part of the bill removed. Some Senate liberals, led by Republican Jacob J. Javits of New York, fought the change. Javits argued that all the bill would require was federal enforcement of constitutional rights being denied by states. The Senate voted 52-38 to drop this provision and weaken the legislation.

To soften the House proposal even more, southern senators presented an amendment demanding jury trials for individuals charged with contempt of court in civil rights cases. Republican supporters of the original bill objected, pointing out that jury lists were usually compiled from voting registration lists, producing virtually all-white juries. Few white southerners, it was thought, would convict one of their own in a civil rights case. Judges on the federal bench would more likely be objective in their decisions. This section had to stand unchanged or the law would be meaningless. In an unusual coalition, northern liberals who believed that the right to a jury trial was as important as the right to vote supported their conservative colleagues from the South and defended the amendment. Johnson voted for the change, arguing that Americans would demand jury trials. Republican leader William F. Knowland Knowland, William F. of California denounced the amendment after consultation with the White House, saying it would kill the voting rights bill. With support from Democratic senators from all sections of the country, the Senate voted to accept the amendment.

As the legislation now read, jury trials would be allowed in criminal contempt cases where large fines or jail sentences were possible. In cases of civil contempt where the court was not asked to punish but only to order compliance with federal law, a judge could convict a defendant without a jury. The Senate approved the amended bill on August 7 by a margin of 72-18, despite a twenty-hour filibuster by Senator Strom Thurmond Thurmond, Strom , a Democrat from South Carolina. Thurmond’s speech was not supported by any other southerner and had no effect on the result, though it did earn for him the record for making the longest single speech in the history of the Senate.

Because of major differences in the House and Senate versions, a conference committee made up of members of both houses was appointed to negotiate a compromise. Both sides agreed to minor changes as Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas used his great influence to convince colleagues to accept the much weaker Senate version. The conference agreement gave federal judges the right to decide whether a jury trial would be needed in cases concerning voting rights infractions. A maximum penalty of $300 and forty-five days in jail was imposed in nonjury cases. If there was a jury trial, the maximum penalty was increased to $1,000 and six months in prison. The only sections remaining from the original bill were the creation of a commission on civil rights and establishment of a civil rights division in the Justice Department. On August 29, both the House and the Senate passed the conference bill and sent it to the president for his signature.

Some civil rights leaders called upon Eisenhower to reject the weak bill, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the two largest and most-respected civil rights groups, argued that any bill was better than none. Martin Luther King King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;civil rights legislation , Jr., who had recently achieved prominence as leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, talked with Nixon and urged him to encourage the president to sign the legislation. On September 9, in the middle of the school crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, when white mobs rioted to prevent integration of the public school system, Eisenhower signed the bill and the Commission on Civil Rights came into existence.


The Commission on Civil Rights had power to study complaints and issue reports on violations of voting rights but could not force states to change registration procedures. Hence, two years after Congress passed the law, most African Americans in southern states were still unable to vote. Still, the five-person commission played a valuable role in exposing racist practices used by southern states to maintain a segregated society. Armed with the responsibility of appraising federal authority in promoting equal protection of the laws in education, housing, employment, public transportation, and the administration of justice, the commission issued a series of key reports outlining methods used to discriminate by race. Information developed by staff investigators was later used to promote passage of major civil rights laws such as the Public Accommodations Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The commission issued several key reports between 1959 and 1965. The first study called for major changes in voting registration laws. It called for public inspection of all voting records, necessary since many local registrars in Mississippi and Alabama refused to allow anyone to see registration lists. The commission asked for power to issue subpoenas when records were denied to investigators, a power never granted, and called upon Congress to make it a federal crime for states to refuse to fulfill their registration responsibilities, a suggestion adopted by Congress in 1965. A fourth point, that the president be given power to appoint registrars who would register voters until states could show their procedures were nondiscriminatory, also became part of federal law. In education, the commission called for an annual school census to show the race of each student and offered to provide help communities developing desegregation plans.

In 1961, the commission presented a massive five-volume report on voting rights, education, employment, housing, and justice. It called for a ban on any voter qualifications other than age and length of residency and for the elimination of literacy tests, the major obstacle to voter registration. Instead of demanding that registrants pass difficult examinations based on knowledge of the Constitution, the commission recommended that a sixth-grade education be recognized as proof of literacy. Concerning education, the commission’s main advice was for Congress to cut 50 percent of federal aid to schools in states refusing to end segregation.

The commission also recommended that Congress establish a permanent committee on equal employment opportunity to enforce nondiscriminatory hiring practices for the federal government, the armed forces, and all businesses receiving government contracts and grants. To encourage equal opportunity in housing, the commission asked the president to issue an executive order outlawing discrimination in the sale of homes built with federal mortgage insurance or loan guarantees. On the administration of justice, the report asked Congress to consider federal grants to local police departments to raise the racial sensitivity and professional quality of police officers.

All the above recommendations, except for the last, were put into effect by 1965. The last proposal ultimately became part of federal law, though not until 1969, after four years of urban riots that cost the lives of more than three hundred people. Despite its limited powers, the commission deserves credit for exposing many illegal practices by southern states and for suggesting remedies to discriminatory treatment that found expression in significant civil rights legislation. Commission on Civil Rights, U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1957 Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen E. The President. Vol. 2 in Eisenhower. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. This lengthy two-volume biography contains an analysis of Eisenhower’s racial views and provides a detailed account of his changing attitude toward voting rights and the 1957 bill. Detailed bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Congressional Quarterly. Congress and the Nation, 1945-1964. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Service, 1965. A useful reference to the legislative history of the 1957 civil rights bill and ensuing laws. Includes summaries of major compromises, an analysis of congressional voting, and a guide to legal terms. Contains summaries of reports issued by the Commission on Civil Rights. No bibliography, but has an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conkin, Paul K. Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1986. One of the most objective Johnson biographies. Describes his changing views on race and their effect on his political career. Has a brief discussion of his influence on the compromises necessary to achieve passage of the 1957 law. Detailed bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Rowland, and Robert Novak. Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, a Political Biography. New York: New American Library, 1966. A behind-the-scenes view of Johnson’s great abilities and effectiveness as Democratic majority leader. Has a complete description of the compromises involved in attaining passage of the 1957 act. An interesting summary of the legislative debate, providing information on reasons for Johnson’s final victory. No bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Anthony. Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1964. Assesses the decade from 1954 to 1964. Has a brief discussion of the 1957 debate and the influence of the Commission on Civil Rights. Provides some information on the commission’s reports. Index, brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sundquist, James L. Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1968. One of the few books to discuss all the civil rights legislation of the era. Looks at the views of participants, analyzes their contributions, and assesses the value of the laws passed by Congress. A unique look at how things get done in Washington. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Thurgood Marshall Law Library. University of Maryland School of Law. Historical Publications of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Online collection available at Click on Marshall link. A highly recommended resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wagner, Steven. Eisenhower Republicanism: Pursuing the Middle Way. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006. Examines the moderate path taken by President Eisenhower in his presidential campaign on the question of civil rights. Includes the chapter “Civil Rights, States’ Rights, and Federal Responsibilities.”

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech

Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

Categories: History