The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Powell Amendment and the 1956 Civil Rights Bill

I'm butting up against the lack of depth in, as well as the extent of, online coverage of the Powell amendment votes (earlier piece on March 17). Rather like a cowboy movie set, it's shop-fronts and nothing behind them [1].

So I'm contemplating opening up a second front by bringing into consideration HR 627, the civil rights bill passed by the House in 1956 [2].

And, before hitting the spreadsheets, turn to Caro's Master of the Senate (p779ff) for background.

Mirabile dictu, HR 627 was a Republican bill - 1956, as Democrats would prefer to forget, was the year of massive resistance and the Southern Manifesto. The leading Congressional Negro, Adam Clayton Powell, endorsed Eisenhower for President.

And - I learn from Caro (p780), Attorney-General Herbert Brownell was batting for civil rights while Saint Franklin Roosevelt was shuffling over the 1930s Federal antilynching bills: as member of the New York State Assembly (New York County 10th District), he
advocat[ed] a compulsory Fair Employment Act with enforcement powers strong enough to ensure compliance

The bill he drafted included provisions desegregating public accommodations, as well as others bolstering Negro voting rights. It duly passed the House.

The movie-genic action, as ever, takes place over at the Senate [3]. Not only had the Southern Manifesto been signed, but Southern - that is, Democratic - defences had been strengthened by the appointment of James Eastland to the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee [4]. And there was a national convention coming up, at which Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson fancied himself a contender.

The bill could be blocked, no problem; the trick was to block it without making waves: to get it safely into Eastland's clutches without giving liberals the opportunity of any floor action. (Finley describes the shenanigan (p22a).)

I'm minded to back the cart up, and have a look at the less glamorous House proceedings on HR 627. As with the Powell amendment, there are three roll call votes, RC 134, 135 and 136: the first, a dilatory motion (lost 104-290), the second, to recommit the bill for further strengthening (lost 131-275) and the vote on passage (279-126).

These votes took place on July 19 1956 (RC 134) and July 23 (the others), only a fortnight or so after the Powell amendment votes resulted in the loss of the school construction bill HR 7535.

Some explanation is in order: why the sudden embrace of civil rights? Of course, House members voting for HR 627 knew it stood not a snowball's chance in hell of passing the Senate. But the same applied to HR 7535 with the Powell amendment.

Meanwhile, Caro has a nice quote from Eisenhower (p780):
Cautioning Brownell "not to act like another Charles Sumner" when he testified [to the House Judiciary Committee], Eisenhower illustrated the dangers in stirring up racial emotions with a jocular remark [5]: a southern Negro had recently remarked: "If someone doesn't shut up around here, particularly those Negroes from the North, they're going to get a lot of us niggers killed."

Point to note: Eisenhower told the nigger-joke - Johnson appointed Eastland to Judiciary and organised the trick to kill Ike's civil rights bill.

Beware Democrats wielding airbrushes...

  1. References occur mostly in texts dedicated to deploying some fancy mathematical model.

  2. Not the famous bill, which became the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which came in the following Congress, the 85th.

  3. It's in Chapter 4 of the Keith Finley thesis (starting on p18a - Eisenhower called upon his Attorney General Herbert Brownell to draft civil rights legislation...

  4. This was the first time in ages that the South held the chair of Judiciary. The reason those pesky 1930s anti-lynching bills saw the light of day in the first place was because of this chink in Jim Crow's armour.

  5. Was this edited at all at Random House? Or did the editor decide to leave the ambiguity as it was?


I now have my very own Yahoo Group - snappily named Lincoln Plawg Stuff - to stow things like spreadsheets, photos and other stuff I refer to here, but for which Blogger has no house-room.

The Powell amendment spreadsheets (as XLS files - though I work in Open Office) are here.

(Why I never thought of the device before, I know not. Very useful as a blog add-on...)

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