Today in 1960: The Civil Rights Act of 1960 is signed into law

May 6, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryOn May 6, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the 1960 Civil Rights Act into law, the second civil rights act passed in the twentieth century.

The Act sought to protect African Americans at the polls, who were facing intimidation of all kinds to prevent them from voting.

To that end, the act provided penalties for anyone who obstructed another’s attempt to register to vote or actually vote, and also created a federal inspection agency of local voter registration polls.

However, the Act was largely ineffective, as both this Act and Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act only added an extra 3% to black voter turnout in the 1960 election.

This was partly due to Eisenhower’s lukewarm support for the civil rights movement, but this limited success is also because of what such civil rights acts represented.

The last time any civil rights acts were passed was immediately after the Civil War, and they were responsible for guaranteeing major new protections to newly freed black slaves and other racial minorities.

Fearing similar changes to the status quo, many politicians, fuelled by intense conservative Southern opposition, opposed the Act not for what it actually said, but for the changes it stood for.

This opposition gave the 1960 Civil Rights Act the distinction of sparking the longest filibuster in history.

The filibuster took place in the Senate, and the debate over the bill’s passage started on February 29, 1960.

Capitol B&WIn a shrewd move, a group of 18 Southern Democrats banded together to perform the filibuster for as long as possible.

The senators divided into three teams of six so that each member would only have to speak for four hours every three days.

This allowed them to filibuster far longer than would be realistic individually.

The filibuster started on February 29, and continued until interrupted by a fifteen-minute break 43 hours later on the morning of March 2, 1960.

After the break ended, the filibuster continued for another 82 hours.

Eventually, 24-hour sessions were called off by majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson.  By this point, the filibuster lasted for 125 hours and 31 minutes, minus the 15-minute break.

Filibusters such as this were common during the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, Senator Strom Thurmond currently holds the record for the longest filibuster ever conducted by a single senator, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an attempt to obstruct the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Just as this opposition feared, the Civil Rights Acts passed by Eisenhower, despite their ineffectuality, paved the way for much stronger legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Both the filibuster the Act provoked and the stronger legislation passed in response to it may serve as an important example for today’s reformers.

Even the smallest step in the direction of change will face heavy resistance; that step, though, can turn into great strides down the right path.