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The role of the Federal Government
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower believed the position of African Americans would improve of its own accord over
time, therefore, he felt it was not the governments job to improve their conditions. This
approach is evident in his reluctance to become involved in Little Rock in 1957.
Towards the end of his Presidency, Eisenhower proposed 2 Civil Rights Acts. Notably, both
Acts faced considerable opposition in Congress and the terms were weakened as a result.
Civil Rights Act (1957)
It focused on voting rights of African Americans.
The Act proposed the establishment of a Commission on Civil1 Rights a bi-partisan
committee designed to monitor the voting rights of African Americans.
Individuals found guilty of preventing African Americans from registering as voters would
face a fine of $1000 or a maximum sentence of 6 months in jail.
These penalties were relatively small and did not act as a deterrent.
Civil Rights Act (1960)
This Act narrowly extended the powers of the Commission on Civil Rights by requiring local
authorities to keep records of voter registration.
This allowed the Commission to monitor black voter registration more accurately.
By 1960, Eisenhower's 2 Acts had only increased the proportion of black voters by 3%
How did Kennedy's `New Frontier' and Johnsons Great Society impact Civil Rights?
Kennedy's `New Frontier'
`Frontier' conjures up images of the pioneers moving West in the USA in the C19th, setting
their frontier nearer the Pacific coast. It would involve:
Uncharted areas of space and science
Unsolved problems of peace and war
Unanswered questions of poverty and surplus
Unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice
These would require, he asserted `Invention, Innovation and Imagination'
Few hearing the `New Frontier' could doubt that the main `unconquered pocket' of prejudice
to be tackled was the prejudice against African Americans. This would be one of Kennedy's
biggest challenges all these policies required the assertion of federal authority, but the
policy where this was most disputed was Civil Rights.
How committed was Kennedy to CR's?
1961, Kennedy inherited the situation that the sit-ins had created and almost immediately
faced the issue of The Freedom Rides
Kennedy produced a new wave of interest in political process on University campuses.
When Martin Luther King was arrested for sitting-in at Rich's department store, Kennedy
made sure King was released with the help of his brother Robert. King had before regarded
Southern Democrats as racists and had supported Republican until Kennedy in 1960.
Kennedy and the Freedom Rides
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Protestors were optimistic that Kennedy would be forced to intervene because of the
appalling treatment they were receiving. However, federal intervention was a bit more
complex. If Kennedy used too much of the federal heavy hand, it would be against spirit, if
not the letter of constitution.
President Kennedy was annoyed that Alabama Governor John Patterson had at first claimed
to have everything under control, and then reported that he couldn't guarantee the safety
of 21 people who were badly beaten in town.…read more
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The phrase `Great Society' was not new, but was put into Johnson's mouth by his eloquent
speechwriter Richard Goodwin as his catchphrase, just as Kennedy had `Great Frontier'.
Questions of poverty were tackled at Federal level by bodies such as the Office of Economic
Opportunity. Federal payment of goods and services to the poor were increased.
A major Education Act of 1965 gave federal funds directly to the localities, while college
scholarships subsidised students from low-income families.…read more
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Johnson's tactics paid off. The Bill went through Congress with substantial majorities, there
was certainly stiff resistance such as Senator Richard Russell's filibuster, but it didn't work.
1965 Voting Rights Act
It was clear that the 1964 CRA alone couldn't ensure universal black voter registration and
that a separate legislation was required. For SCLC, the focus was now to be on Alabama,
Selma in particular. Once again a President would use language reminiscent of CR's