Impeachment of Johnson
In 1867, the political battle between President Johnson and Congress over southern Reconstruction came to a confrontation. The Radical Republicans in Congress were not content with curbing Johnson’s authority by overriding his vetoes--they wanted to remove him altogether. Under the laws of the time, removing Johnson meant that Ben Wade, the president pro tempore of the Senate, would become president.
While many considered Johnson to be an inadequate president, he had done nothing to merit removal from office. Johnson believed that everything he did was in the interest of preserving a constitutional government. When Congress passed laws retracting powers granted to the president by the Constitution, Johnson refused to accept them.
For example, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which prohibited the president from removing senate-approved officials without first gaining the consent of the Senate. The Senate’s goal was to keep Johnson from firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who had been appointed by President Lincoln. Stanton was a staunch supporter of the Congress and did not agree with President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies.
Johnson believed the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional and challenged it head-on by dismissing Stanton in early 1868. In response, the House voted 126 to 47 to impeach Johnson for "high crimes and misdemeanors,” and they started the procedures set up in the Constitution for removing the president. They charged him with eleven articles of impeachment, eight of which focused on the unlawful removal of Stanton.
Johnson faced a Senate tribunal, presided over by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Johnson’s lawyers set out to prove that the Tenure of Office Act did not protect Stanton because it gave Cabinet members tenure “during the term of the President by whom they may have been appointed,” and it was President Lincoln who had appointed Stanton.
On May 16, 1868, the Senate voted and the Radical Republicans were a mere one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove Johnson from office. If Johnson had been forced from office on such weak charges, it may have set a destructive precedent and permanently undermined the executive branch of the United States government.
To appease the Radical Republicans, Johnson agreed to stop obstructing the process of Reconstruction. He named a Secretary of War who was committed to enforcing the new laws, and Reconstruction began in earnest. Ironically, in 1926 the Supreme Court found the Tenure of Office Act to be unconstitutional.
The Reconstructed South
The postwar South, where most of the fighting had occurred, faced many challenges. In the war’s aftermath, Southerners experienced collapsed property values, damaged railroads, and agricultural hardships. The elite planters were faced with overwhelming economic adversity perpetuated by a lack of laborers for their fields. However, it was the newly freed slaves in the former Confederate states that faced the greatest challenge: what to do with their newfound freedom.
Blacks acquired new rights and opportunities, such as equality before the law and the rights to own property, be married, attend schools, enter professions, and learn to read and write. One of the first opportunities the former slaves took advantage of was the chance to educate themselves and their children. The new Radical Republican state governments took steps to provide adequate public schools for the first time in the south.
Nearly 600,000 black students, from children to the elderly, were in southern schools by 1877. Although State Reconstruction officials tried to prohibit discrimination, the new schools practiced racial segregation, and the black schools generally received less funding than white schools. Black churches, recognizing the importance of the education initiatives, helped raise money to build schools and pay teachers, and many northern missionaries moved south to serve as teachers.
Another opportunity the former slaves pursued was involvement in politics. When the Fifteenth Amendment offered the chance for suffrage, black men seized the opportunity and began to organize politically. The freedmen affiliated themselves with the Republican Party, and hundreds of black delegates participated in statewide political conventions. Blacks used the Union Leagues to organize into a network of political clubs, provide political education, and campaign for Republican candidates. Black women did not have the right to vote at the time, but they aided the political movement with rallies and meetings that supported the Republican candidates.
In the new state governments of the south, black participation was a novelty. As their political involvement grew, several freedmen were elected to office. Those who were elected generally had some education, had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, had been free before the 1860s, or had some prior experience in public service.
Nearly 600 blacks served as state legislators, and many participated in the local governments as mayors, judges, and sheriffs. Between 1868 and 1876 at the federal level, 14 black men served in the House of Representatives and two black men served in the Senate--Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both born in Mississippi and educated in the north. The freedmen’s involvement in politics caused a great deal of controversy in the south, where the idea of former slaves holding office was not widely supported.
While several black men held political offices, the top positions with the most power in southern state governments were held by the freedmen’s white Republican allies. The Confederate-minded whites soon came to call them “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags,” depending on their place of birth.
The Confederates described “carpetbaggers” as Northerners who packed all their belongings in carpetbag suitcases and rushed south in hopes of finding economic opportunity and personal power, which was true in some instances. Many of these Northerners were actually businessmen, professionals, teachers, and preachers who either wanted to “modernize” the south or were driven by a missionary impulse.
The “scalawags” were native Southerners and Unionists who had opposed secession. The former Confederates accused them of cooperating with the Republicans because they wanted to advance their personal interests. Many of the “scalawags” became Republicans because they had originally supported the Whig Party before secession and they saw the Republicans as the logical successors to the defunct Whig Party.
Some Southern whites resorted to savage tactics against the new freedom and political influence blacks held. Several secret vigilante organizations developed. The most prominent terrorist group was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), first organized in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866. Members of the KKK, called “Klansmen,” rode around the south, hiding under white masks and robes, terrorizing Republicans and intimidating black voters. They went so far as to flog, mutilate, and even lynch blacks.
Congress, outraged by the brutality of the vigilantes and the lack of local efforts to protect blacks and persecute their tormentors, struck back with three Enforcement Acts (1870-1871) designed to stop the terrorism and protect black voters. The Acts allowed the federal government to intervene when state authorities failed to protect citizens from the vigilantes. Aided by the military, the program of federal enforcement eventually undercut the power of the Ku Klux Klan. However, the Klan’s actions had already weakened black and Republican morale throughout the south.
As the Radical Republican influence diminished in the south, other interests occupied the attention of Northerners. Western expansion, Indian wars, corruption at all levels of government, and the growth of industry all diverted attention from the civil rights and well-being of ex-slaves. By 1876, Radical Republican regimes had collapsed in all but two of the former Confederate states, with the Democratic Party taking over. Despite the Republicans’ efforts, the planter elite were regaining control of the south. This group came to be known as the “Redeemers,” a coalition of prewar Democrats and Union Whigs who sought to undo the changes brought about in the south by the Civil War. Many were ex-plantation owners called “Bourbons” whose policies affected blacks and poor whites, leading to an increase in class division and racial violence in the post-war south.
In the election of 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant, the most popular northern hero to emerge from the Civil War, became president. Grant ran on the Republican ticket with the slogan, “Let us have peace” against the Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour. The Republican platform endorsed the Reconstruction policy of Congress, payment of the national debt with gold, and cautious defense of black suffrage.
Grant swept the Electoral College with 214 votes, compared to Seymour’s 80. However, Grant only had about 300,000 more popular votes than Seymour, with the more than 500,000 black voters accounting for his margin of victory.
Unfortunately, the qualities that had made Grant a fine military leader did not serve him well as president. Grant had a dislike of politics and passively followed the lead of Congress in the formulation of policy. He was honest to the point of being the victim of unscrupulous friends and schemers. All of this left him ineffective and caused others to question his leadership abilities.
Financial problems plagued Grant’s presidency. With the end of the war, the Treasury assumed that the nearly $450 million worth of greenbacks issued during the conflict would be retired and the nation would return to using gold coins. Numerous agrarian and debtor groups resisted doing so, believing it would negatively affect the economy, cause deflation, and make it harder to pay long-term debts. In President Grant’s inaugural address, he encouraged the payment of the national debt with gold. In March 1869, he signed his first act--the Public Credit Act--which endorsed that principle.
The first major scandal of Grant’s presidency came in 1869, when two millionaire partners, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, connived with Grant’s brother-in-law to corner the gold market. They convinced Grant that the federal Treasury should refrain from selling gold because the rise in gold prices would raise farm prices. Fisk and Gould bid the price of gold up from $132 to $163 per ounce. On September 24, 1869, the Treasury was ordered to sell large quantities of gold, causing the bubble to burst.
Another scandal that rocked the Grant administration was the Crédit Mobilier scandal. It came to light during the 1872 election that the Union Pacific Railroad had formed the Crédit Mobilier construction company and then hired themselves at inflated prices to build the railroad line. The company then “bought” several prominent Republican congressmen with shares of its valuable stock. A congressional investigation led to the formal censure of only two of the corrupt congressmen.
The Whiskey Ring affair was also revealed during the 1872 election. The Whiskey Ring bribed tax collectors to rob the Treasury of millions in excise-tax revenues. Grant was adamant that no guilty man involved in the scheme should escape prosecution, but when he discovered his private secretary was involved, he helped exonerate him. Grant’s Secretary of War was also discovered to be involved in accepting bribes from suppliers to the Indian reservations.
The scandals and incompetence surrounding Grant’s administration, along with disagreement among party members, led a group of Republicans to break off and start the reform-minded Liberal Republican Party. Unlike the other Republicans, the Liberal Republicans favored gold to redeem greenbacks, low tariffs, an end to military Reconstruction, and restoration of the rights of former Confederates. The Liberal Republicans were generally well educated and socially prominent, and most had initially supported Reconstruction. They nominated Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, for president in 1872. The Democrats also endorsed Greeley’s candidacy, even though he had always been hostile toward them. Grant, as expected, won the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term.
In 1872, voters had to choose between two presidential candidates who were not politicians and who had questionable qualifications. In the end, the regular Republicans were able to sway votes by once again “waving the bloody shirt”--appealing to the hatred of northern voters and reminding them of the trials of war. Grant won with a popular majority of nearly 800,000 votes and with 286 Electoral College votes to Greeley’s 66. After Grant’s victory, the Republicans did clean house with some civil-service reform and reduction of high Civil War tariffs.
An economic crisis in America followed shortly after the presidential election of 1872. Unbridled expansion of factories, railroads, and farms and contraction of the money supply through the withdrawal of greenbacks helped trigger the Panic of 1873. This was the longest and most severe depression the country had experienced, with over 15,000 businesses filing bankruptcy, widespread unemployment, and a slowdown in railroad and factory building.
The split of the Republican Party helped the Democrats gain seats in the Senate and carry the House of Representatives in the 1874 congressional elections. With control of the House, the Democrats immediately launched more investigations into the presidential scandals and discovered further evidence of corruption.
The Panic put the issues surrounding greenback currency back into public focus. Greenbacks were valued less than gold, so people tended to spend them first and save their gold or use it to pay foreign accounts, which drained gold out of the country. The Treasury had been slowly removing the greenbacks from circulation in order to combat inflation following the Civil War.
“Hard money” people--primarily creditors who did not want the money they loaned repaid with depreciated dollars--looked forward to the complete withdrawal of greenbacks. In contrast, “cheap money” people--agrarian and debtor groups--pushed for the Treasury to reissue greenbacks that had been withdrawn in hopes that doing so would stimulate the economy. In 1874, President Grant vetoed a bill to issue more greenbacks. Congress then passed the Resumption Act of 1875, which called for the gradual redemption of greenbacks for gold starting in 1879, making the value of paper money equal to that of gold.
The Resumption Act infuriated the “cheap money” people and resulted in the formation of the Greenback Labor Party, which elected fourteen congressmen in 1878. The Act brought the greenbacks up to their full face value and helped restore the government’s credit. However, the contest over monetary policy persisted as one of the most divisive issues in American politics.
Although President Grant’s terms in office were tainted with corruption, his supporters urged him to run for a third term in 1876. Some believe he did not run due to the many scandals that emerged during his terms. Others believe it was because the House passed a resolution to limit presidents to two terms in office. Either way, Grant was out of the running, and the Republicans turned to a compromise candidate: Rutherford B. Hayes from Ohio. Hayes was a three-time governor of Ohio, and his chief virtue was that no one knew much about him, so both Radicals and reformers accepted him.
The Democratic Party nominated Samuel J. Tilden, a famous lawyer from New York who had overthrown the notorious Boss Tweed. Both Hayes and Tilden favored conservative rule in the south and civil service reform. Since the campaign did not generate any substantive issues, the two parties turned to mud-slinging, with Republicans claiming Democrats were Confederates and Democrats pointing to the corruption of the past Republican presidency.
On Election Day, Tilden garnered 184 electoral votes--only one short of the majority needed--and nearly 300,000 more popular votes than Hayes. However, there were 20 disputed electoral votes due to irregular returns from Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In the three disputed southern states, rival canvassing boards submitted different returns to Congress: one supporting a Democratic win and the other supporting a Republican win. Unfortunately, the Constitution had no provisions outlined for such a situation, so in January 1877, Congress set up a special electoral commission consisting of 15 men from the Senate, House, and Supreme Court.
The electoral commission reviewed the votes for Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina and, by partisan result of eight Republicans to seven Democrats, gave the Republicans the electoral votes. The House voted to accept the commission’s decision, declaring Hayes President by an electoral vote of 185 to 184. Congressional Democrats threatened to filibuster and prevent the recording of the electoral vote.
Many southern Democrats began to make informal agreements with the Republicans behind closed doors. In the Compromise of 1877, Republican Congressman James Garfield met with powerful southern Democrats at the Wormley Hotel in Washington. The Republicans promised that if Hayes was elected he would withdraw the last of the federal troops from the south, allowing the only remaining Republican Reconstruction governments to collapse. Another concession the Republicans made was to promise support for a bill that would subsidize construction of the southern transcontinental railroad line. Finally, the Republicans also consented to giving the position of Postmaster-General to a southern white.
The Compromise came at a price: It gave the Democrats justification to desert Tilden, since it would allow them to regain political rule in the south. With the compromise, the Republicans had quietly given up their fight for racial equality and blacks’ rights in the south. In 1877, Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from the south, and the bayonet-backed Republican governments collapsed, thereby ending Reconstruction.Over the next three decades, the civil rights that blacks had been promised during Reconstruction crumbled under white rule in the south. The plight of southern Blacks was forgotten in the north as they were segregated and condemned to live in poverty with little hope. Radical Reconstruction had never offered more than an uncertain commitment to equality, but it had left an enduring legacy with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments waiting to be enforced.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "The End of Reconstruction" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/the-end-of-reconstruction/>.
The Civil Rights Movement And The Second Reconstruction, 1945—1968
The broad period from the end of World War II until the late 1960s, often referred to as the “Second Reconstruction,” consisted of a grass-roots civil rights movement coupled with gradual but progressive actions by the Presidents, the federal courts, and Congress to provide full political rights for African Americans and to begin to redress longstanding economic and social inequities. While African-American Members of Congress from this era played prominent roles in advocating for reform, it was largely the efforts of everyday Americans who protested segregation that prodded a reluctant Congress to pass landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s.76
About this objectHoward Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, routinely used his influential position to thwart civil rights legislation. Smith often shuttered committee operations by retreating to his rural farm to avoid deliberations on pending reform bills.
Several factors prevented the few African Americans in Congress from playing prominent legislative roles in institutional efforts to pass the major acts of 1957, 1964, and 1965. Black Members were too scarce to alter institutional processes or form a consequential voting bloc. Until the fall 1964 elections, there were only five African Americans in Congress: Dawson, Powell, Diggs, Nix, and Hawkins. John Conyers joined the House in 1965 and Brooke entered the Senate in 1967. These new Members had a limited amount of influence, although Hawkins scored a major success as a freshman when he helped shape the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a member of Powell’s Education and Labor Committee, and Brooke helped secure the housing anti-discrimination provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 during his first term in the Senate. Yet while they were determined, energetic, and impassioned, there were too few African Americans in Congress to drive a policy agenda. Moreover, black Members themselves disagreed as to the best method to achieve civil rights advances, and individual legislative styles, conflicting loyalties (party versus activist agendas), and personality differences circumscribed their ability to craft a black issues agenda. Consequently, their uncoordinated and sporadic actions mitigated their potential effect. At key moments, some were excluded from the process or were inexplicably absent. Their symbolic leader, Powell, was too polarizing a figure for House leaders to accord him a highly visible role in the process. This perhaps explains why the Harlem Representative, despite his public passion for racial justice and his ability to deliver legislation through the Education and Labor Committee, was sometimes unusually detached from the legislative process.82
The Senate’s anti-majoritarian structure magnified the power of southern racial conservatives. In contrast to the rules of the House, which strictly limited Members’ ability to speak on the floor, the Senate’s long-standing tradition of allowing Members to speak without interruption played into the hands of obstructionists. The filibuster, a Senate practice that allowed a Senator or a group of Senators to prevent a vote on a bill, became the chief weapon of civil rights opponents. In this era, too, Senate rules were modified, raising the bar needed to achieve cloture, i.e., to end debate and move to a vote on legislation. From 1949 to 1959, cloture required the approval of two-thirds of the chamber’s entire membership, rather than two-thirds of the Members who were present. Influential southern Senators held key positions in the upper chamber and, not surprisingly, were among the most skilled parliamentarians. Richard Russell of Georgia, a master of procedure, framed the opposition’s defense on constitutional concerns about federal interference in states’ issues, making him a more palatable figure than many of the Senate’s earlier racial conservatives such as Mississippi’s James K. Vardaman or Theodore Bilbo.84 Russell attracted northern and western Republicans to his cause based on their opposition to the expansion of federal powers that would be necessary to enforce civil rights in the South. Mississippi’s James Eastland, another procedural tactician, who presided over the Judiciary Committee beginning in March 1956, bragged that he had special pockets tailored into his suits where he stuffed bothersome civil rights bills. Between 1953 and 1965 more than 122 civil rights measures were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but only one was reported back to the full Senate.85
Racial violence in the South, which amounted to domestic terrorism against blacks, continued into the middle of the 20th century and powerfully shaped public opinion. Though more sporadic than before, beatings, cross burnings, lynchings, and myriad other forms of white-on-black intimidation went largely unpunished. Nearly 200 African Americans are thought to have been lynched between 1929 and 1964, but that figure likely underrepresents the actual number.87 In August 1955, a particularly gruesome killing galvanized activists and shocked a largely complacent nation. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi, was shot in the head, and his lifeless body was dumped off a bridge, for the alleged “crime” of whistling at a white woman. Determined to expose the brutality of the act, his mother allowed the national press to photograph the boy’s remains, and thousands of mourners streamed past the open casket.
Charles Diggs’s visible role in the wake of the Till lynching “catapulted” him into the “national spotlight.”88 At considerable personal risk, Diggs accompanied Till’s mother to the September 1955 trial at which the two accused murderers were acquitted in kangaroo court proceedings. Diggs’s presence in Mississippi demonstrated solidarity with (and hope for) many local African Americans. A black reporter covering the trial recalled that Diggs “made a difference down there…people lined up to see him. They had never seen a black member of Congress. Blacks came by the truckloads. Never before had a member of Congress put his life on the line protecting the constitutional rights of blacks.”89 Diggs, who earlier had pushed for a U.S. Justice Department probe of the defrauding of black Mississippi voters, proposed to unseat the Members of the Mississippi delegation to the U.S. House on the grounds that they were elected by only a fraction of the state’s voters.90 Diggs’s performance contrasted sharply with that of William Dawson, who represented the Chicago district where Till’s mother lived. In an open 1956 letter to Dawson, the NAACP questioned his failure to comment publicly on the Till lynching. Expressing further disappointment with Dawson’s support for reform legislation as a member of the Democratic committee writing the civil rights plank for the national party, the NAACP denounced him for “silence, compromise, and meaningless moderation” on civil rights matters.91
Southern defiance, on display on Capitol Hill, crystallized in a bold proclamation conceived by Senators Russell, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., of Virginia. Titled the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” and known colloquially as the Southern Manifesto, it attacked the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, accusing the Justices of abusing judicial power and trespassing upon states’ rights. Signed on March 12, 1956, by 82 Representatives and 19 Senators (roughly one-fifth of Congress), it urged southerners to exhaust all “lawful means” in the effort to resist the “chaos and confusion” that would result from school desegregation.
Civil Rights Act of 1957
In 1956, partly at the initiative of outside advocacy groups such as the NAACP, proposals by Eisenhower’s Justice Department under the leadership of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, and the growing presidential ambitions of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, a civil rights bill began to move through Congress. Southern opponents such as Senators Russell and Eastland, realizing that some kind of legislation was imminent, slowed and weakened reform through the amendment process. The House passed the measure by a wide margin, 279 to 97, though southern opponents managed to excise voting protections from the original language. Adam Clayton Powell and Charles Diggs argued passionately on the House Floor for a strong bill. Powell particularly aimed at southern amendments that preserved trials by local juries because all-white juries (since blacks were excluded from the voting process, they were also barred from jury duty) ensured easy acquittals for white defendants accused of crimes against blacks. “This is an hour for great moral stamina,” Powell told colleagues. “America stands on trial today before the world and communism must succeed if democracy fails…Speak no more concerning the bombed and burned and gutted churches behind the Iron Curtain when here in America behind our ’color curtain’ we have bombed and burned churches and the confessed perpetrators of these crimes go free because of trial by jury.”93 In the Senate, Paul H. Douglas of Illinois and Minority Leader William F. Knowland of California circumvented Eastland’s Judiciary Committee and got the bill onto the floor for debate. Lyndon Johnson played a crucial role, too, discouraging an organized southern filibuster while forging a compromise that allayed southern concern about the bill’s jury and trial provisions.94 On August 29 the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (P.L. 85-315) by a vote of 60 to 15.
Though southern Members were heartened by these successes, consequential internal congressional reforms promised to end obstructionism. In 1961, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas challenged Chairman Howard Smith directly by proposing to expand the Rules Committee by adding three more Members to the roster, a move that was intended to break Smith’s stranglehold over social legislation. Rayburn recruited a group of roughly two dozen northern Republicans who supported the reform and declared their intention to “repudiate” a GOP alliance with southern Democrats “to attempt to narrow the base of our party, to dull its conscience, to transform it into a negative weapon of obstruction.”95 The forces of reform prevailed by a margin of 217 to 212. The support of moderate Republicans presaged the development of a coalition that would undercut the power of southern racial conservatives and pass sweeping civil rights laws.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
A reluctant Kennedy administration began coordinating with congressional allies to pass a significant reform bill. Freshman Representative Gus Hawkins observed in May 1963 that the federal government had a special responsibility to ensure that federal dollars did not underwrite segregation practices in schools, facilities for vocational education, libraries, and other municipal entities, saying, “those who dip their hands in the public treasury should not object if a little democracy sticks to their fingers.” Otherwise “do we not harm our own fiscal integrity, and allow room in our conduct for other abuses of public funds?”96 After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, invoked the slain President’s memory to prod reluctant legislators to produce a civil rights measure.
Having passed the House, the act faced its biggest hurdle in the Senate. President Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana tapped Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to build Senate support for the measure and fend off the efforts of a determined southern minority to stall it. One historian notes that Humphrey’s assignment amounted to an “audition for the role of Johnson’s running mate in the fall presidential election.”99 Humphrey, joined by Republican Thomas Kuchel of California, performed brilliantly, lining up the support of influential Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. By allaying Dirksen’s unease about the enforcement powers of the EEOC, civil rights proponents then co-opted the support of a large group of midwestern Republicans who followed Dirksen’s lead.100 On June 10, 1964, for the first time in its history, the Senate invoked cloture on a civil rights bill (by a vote of 71 to 29), thus cutting off debate and ending a 75-day filibuster—the longest in the chamber’s history. On June 19, 1964, 46 Democrats and 27 Republicans joined forces to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 73 to 27. President Johnson signed the bill (P.L. 88-352) into law on July 2, 1964.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
After President Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress to speak about the events in Selma, legislative action was swift. A bill moved through both chambers that suspended the use of literacy tests for a five-year period and provided for sending federal poll watchers and voting registrars to states with persistent patterns of voting discrimination. It required Justice Department pre-clearance of any change to election statutes. Finally, the bill made obstructing an individual’s right to vote a federal crime. On May 26, 1965, the Senate passed the Voting Rights Act by a vote of 77 to 19. Among the African-American Members who spoke on behalf of the bill on the House Floor was freshman John Conyers, Jr. Joined by Representatives Diggs, Hawkins, and Powell, Conyers had visited Selma in February 1965 as part of a 15-Member congressional delegation that investigated voting discrimination.102 The experience convinced him that there was ”no alternative but to have the federal Government take a much more positive and specific role in guaranteeing the right to register and vote in all elections…surely this Government cannot relax if even one single American is arbitrarily denied that most basic right of all in a democracy—the right to vote.”103 The House passed the act by a vote of 333 to 85 on July 9, 1965. An amended conference report passed both chambers by wide margins and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-110) into law on August 6, 1965.104
Coupled with the “one man, one vote” standard, which set off a round of court-ordered redistricting, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reshaped the electoral landscape for African Americans. In southern states, particularly in cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and Memphis, the creation of districts with a majority of African-American constituents propelled greater numbers of African Americans into Congress by the early 1970s. In northern urban areas, too, the growing influence of black voters reshaped Congress. Blacks constituted a growing percentage of the population of major U.S. cities (20 percent in 1970 versus 12 percent in 1950), partly because in the 1960s whites left the cities in droves for the suburbs.107 In 1968, Louis Stokes (Cleveland), Bill Clay (St. Louis), and Shirley Chisholm (Brooklyn) were elected to Congress from redrawn majority-black districts in which white incumbents chose not to run.108 By 1971, the number of African-American Members in the House was more than double the number who had served in 1965.
Civil Rights Act of 1968
The era’s final major piece of civil rights legislation reflected the changing emphasis of the civil rights movement itself: Having secured a measure of political rights, black leaders now emphasized the importance of equal economic and educational opportunity. Congressional action in this area was measured; the national mood and major events had begun to turn against reform. The ambitious agenda of federal programs known as the Great Society had begun to wane. Initiated by President Johnson in the mid-1960s, these programs were in many ways conceived of as an extension of New Deal reforms. Great Society legislation marked the zenith of federal activism—addressing civil rights, urban development, the environment, health care, education, housing, consumer protection, and poverty. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the administration won the enactment of a number of far-reaching programs, among them several that exist today, such as Medicare, which provides health coverage for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides the poor with access to hospitalization, optional medical insurance, and other health care benefits.109
Learn more about the House and Civil Rights, specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.More >