Black Civil Rights

– Supported By The Government? Essay, Research Paper


the struggle for African American civil rights won with or without the

help of the US federal government?The

Federal government of the United States has at different times taken different

attitudes towards the African-American community and the campaign for civil

rights.? Furthermore, different branches

of the Federal government have often reacted differently to demands for civil

rights.? At times, the Supreme Court has

taken a very reactionary stance, Plessy vs. Ferguson being just one

example.? At other times, it has been

very supportive of civil rights, as in the seminal decision in Brown vs.

Board of Education.? Likewise, the

executive has varied in its approach.?

Roosevelt appeared sympathetic but did little.? Eisenhower was essentially reactionary.? Kennedy and Johnson actively supported civil rights

campaigners.? In the legislature,

Congress was sometimes reactionary, and yet it was Congress which ultimately

passed civil rights legislation.? However,

despite this variation in Federal policy, it is my intention in this essay to

show that the civil rights movement was ultimately dependent on the Federal

government for success, and that without the Federal government there would

have been no abolition of segregation.?

I intend to show this by looking at the actions of the three branches of

the Federal government in turn, and then finally at the citizens movements in

order to show their inability to bring about reform without the aid of the

Federal government.The

Federal judiciary is generally considered to have been instrumental in the

struggle for civil rights, quite often at the expense of the other branches of

government.? For example, Charles

Hamilton in his essay Federal Law and the Courts? in the Civil Rights Movement states that ?because the other

branches of government were not responsive to often-perceived legitimate

demands of the civil rights advocates, the courts had thrust upon them the task

of preserving systemic legitimacy?.?

Hamilton argues that the courts were the only place where the civil

rights movement could make any progress, because of the dismissive attitude of

the executive and legislature to the civil rights movement.Although

it is certainly the case that the judiciary played a very important role in

ending de jure segregation, Hamilton does seem to have forgotten that

very often the Federal courts, and even the Supreme Court (which was after Brown

seen as the main ally of civil rights in the government), had often given decisions

which were in fact harmful to the advance of civil rights in the United

States.? One need not go back so far as Plessy

vs. Ferguson to discover these sorts of verdicts being delivered.? Walker vs. Birmingham in 1963 was

decided against the civil rights groups, albeit by a 5-4 decision with Chief

Justice Warren in dissent.? Furthermore,

many individual Federal judges were blatantly racist in the decisions they

made, as even Hamilton admits, citing the examples of Cox and Clayton.The

federal judiciary, then, showed a mixed reaction to the civil rights movement,

sometimes appearing to act in favour of it and sometimes appearing to support

the segregationist opponents of civil rights.?

However, seminal decisions like Brown show that the Supreme

Court, at least, was generally sympathetic.?

One further thing needs to be said regarding the role of the judiciary,

which is that it is impossible for the judiciary alone to change anything.? After the Supreme Court ruling in Brown,

some states, notably Alabama and Mississippi, refused to acknowledge the

decision, claiming that it was unconstitutional.? The Courts were entirely dependent on the legislature to enact

laws to support civil rights, and on the executive to take action to enforce

the laws, by force if necessary.The

situation in Congress was inevitably more complicated than that in the Supreme

Court.? Naturally, many Congressmen were

from the South and were in favour of segregation.? Congress was therefore much less likely to be supportive of the

civil rights movement, even if many of the Representatives and Senators were

sympathetic to its cause.? However, the

support of Congress was vital if decisions like Brown were to take

effect and be implemented in the South.?

As Woodward points out in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, by 1955

?there were as yet no ?teeth? in the Court?s decision against segregated

schools?.? This was because of a lack of

Federal legislation to enforce the Court?s decision.? In the absence of such legislation, individual States were keen

to pass legislation of their own to effectively void the decision in the Brown

case.? Although individual cases against

this State law could be brought before the Courts, Federal legislation was

essential if the attempts to ignore Brown were to be defeated.The

initial hostility of Congress to the civil rights movement can be clearly

seen.? The Senate considered the

possibility of nullifying several decisions made by the Supreme Court, and

eventually decided against doing so by only eight votes.? However, Congress did not maintain this

hostility.? By 1964, Congress was

prepared to pass the Civil Rights Act, and by 1965 the Voting Rights Act.? These two pieces of legislation put an end

to de jure segregation, and also to various pieces of legislation passed

by southern States with the intention of disenfranchising

African-Americans.? The reasons for this

change of heart in Congress must be traced back to the citizen?s movements, and

so will be examined later in the essay.?

However, it is clear that, whatever the cause of it, this federal

legislation was a vital step forward in the battle for civil rights.The

Constitution dictates that ?the Executive Power shall be vested in a

President?, and so it is to the President that we must look to see the attitude

of the executive branch.? There has been

a significant variation in the approach of Presidents to the issue of civil

rights and racial politics.? Eisenhower

took a very conservative stance, declining to vigorously uphold the decision of

the Supreme Court in Brown.? ?You

cannot?, he said ?change people?s hearts merely by law?.? Furthermore, when the Brown ruling

was put to the test in February 1956, Eisenhower expressed his hope that ?we

(i.e. the Federal government) could avoid any interference?.? While this is hardly a sufficient basis to

call Eisenhower a racist, it is evident that he was not committed to the cause

of racial equality.Presidents

Kennedy and Johnson were much more supportive of the civil rights

movement.? Kennedy declared the decision

in Brown to be ?both morally and legally right?, and showed himself

willing to use all the power of the Federal government to enforce the

decision.? In 1962, a force of 320

Federal marshals was used to enrol one man in a university, and thousands of

Federal troops were deployed when this proved to be insufficient force.? Johnson showed a similar commitment,

pressurising Congress into passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and providing

military escorts for civil rights marchers.?

Without this sort of Presidential commitment, it is difficult to see how

the civil rights movement could have achieved its aims.Of

course, there is more to the Federal Executive than the President.? It is essential also to examine the Federal

bureaucracy and see how racism was dealt with at this level.? Segregation was a reality in the bureaucracy

from 1914 onwards, after a bill introduced in 1913 ?to effect certain reforms

in the civil service by segregating clerks and employees of the white race from

those of African blood and descent?.?

Furthermore, African-Americans were largely confined to the lower grades

within the bureaucracy.? Desmond King

claims that ?for over half a century the Federal government played a

significant role in shaping and reinforcing the system of race relations which

disadvantaged Black American citizens?.It is

arguable, however, that the civil service simply reflected the rest of American

society in its racist attitudes, and was less responsible for racism than

responsive to the racism that already existed.?

In support of this contention, it is clear that conditions within the

bureaucracy have improved for African Americans as they have improved in

society, with a 9.2 per cent increase in the total number of African Americans

in the civil service between 1961 and 1965, and a 171.7 per cent increase in

the numbers of African Americans in the highest grades (12-6) over the same

period.? Arguably, then, the bureaucracy

played little role in the advancement of civil rights, reacting rather than


seen the important role played by the three branches of the Federal government

in the civil rights movement, it is important to look at the mass movements of

the era to see whether they could in fact have achieved their aims alone and

without the support of the government.?

To begin, it will be necessary to ask what the goals of organisations

like the N.A.A.C.P. were.? Charles

Hamilton believes that ?the civil rights movement… was first and foremost a

movement to end de jure segregation in the country?.? This is certainly true, but it seems from

the actions of some of the organisations that the ending of de facto segregation

was also an aim.De


segregation could be ended either by the Federal government or by the State

governments.? There was no way for the

civil rights campaigners to directly change the law in this way.? However, the State governments were, on the

whole, completely opposed to the civil rights movements, especially in the Deep

South.? The state governor in Alabama

proudly declared in 1962 that he stood for ?segregation now, segregation

tomorrow, segregation forever?.? It was

the State governor of Mississippi who personally obstructed African-American

students from registering at the State University.? In these conditions, the Federal government was necessary.? In Hamilton?s words, ?at all times the focus

was on getting the national government involved?.De


segregation is a different matter altogether.?

Arguably, Eisenhower was correct.?

One cannot change people?s hearts by law alone.? It is here that the mass organisations came

into their own.? The March on

Washington, the boycotts of bus services, the sit-ins were all tools to end de

facto segregation, and to change people?s hearts.? As Dr King said, the intention was to ?wear you down by our

capacity to suffer?.? This process is

ongoing, but could not even have begun without the support of the Federal

government in ending the legalised segregation practised in the United States.Bibliography: Federal

Law and the Courts in the Civil Rights Movement, Charles Hamilton Race,

Reform and Rebellion, Manning Marable The

Strange Career of Jim Crow, Comer Vann Woodward Separate

and Unequal,

Desmond King


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