What Was the Significance of the Federal Government in Helping or Hindering the Development of Civil Rights in America?

When examining the significance of federal action in the progress of African-American civil rights, it is important to acknowledge that this is not a narrative which climbed inexorably upward. As well as great instances of advancement, there were times when the lot of African-Americans deteriorated, or when progress was lessened, by the actions of the federal government. Similarly, it is also vital to remember that said government consists of three branches: Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court, and that this means talking of the federal government as a unitary authority presents a lack of both understanding and nuance.

The end of Reconstruction is greatly significant in determining the effect of federal authority on the struggle for civil rights; this view is afforded more credibility when considering the verdict of Manning Marable, who suggested in his How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society that Reconstruction ‘did not usher in a new period of Black economic expansion’.[1] This, when taken with the assessment of Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom – who wrote that ‘Basic civil rights were enforced in that brief period known as Reconstruction, but the effort to remake the South failed’[2] – suggests that the advances of the Reconstruction era were fragile. In one sense, this information would greatly increase the extent to which the federal government could be to blame for the decline in black civil rights in the immediate aftermath of the end of Reconstruction; after all, that the gains achieved in that transient period of civil rights advancement were small does not diminish the culpability of those who prevent further advancement from occurring. (That many American politicians, both local and national, felt the continuation of Reconstruction to be unmanageable does diminish the strength of this criticism somewhat; but it must not be forgot that the end of that era must be seen largely as a betrayal of African Americans – especially in the South – who were sometimes abandoned wholesale by their supposed allies in the federal government.)

It could be argued that the knowledge of Reconstruction’s failures or shortcomings may make actions of the federal government appear less severe as regards the apparent betrayal mentioned above. If Reconstruction was doomed to fail – or so the argument goes – abandoning it does not seem to have been the proximate cause of its failure; rather, this was merely prudent – if abhorrent – policy. And there is some sense that historical figures must not be viewed solely through the prism of latter-day morality. (For one thing, such analysis often denigrates or traduces those who were radical in their own times – and made great strides in the direction of progress – but whose opinions or actions would seem entirely unpleasant to a more modern audience. Lincoln exhibited racist attitudes in private; Jefferson owned slaves. But it could not be argued that the impact they had is in some way tarnished in every respect. These things are not black and while.)

That being said, however, it is clear that the negative effects of this stance were very great. They are evidenced by the fact that Reconstruction proved to be mere temporary respite for many Southern African-Americans, representing a brief interjection into a long history of disadvantage and oppression. Adam Fairclough (in his thoroughly impressive book Better Day Coming) writes that ‘[the Democrats] looked forward to the day when they could suppress the black vote entirely’.[3] He also notes, however, that they initially moved slowly, ‘fearing federal intervention’.[4] The implication of this is that, at least for a time, the federal government was seen as a bulwark against the erosion of black liberty. The end of Reconstruction, though, was dramatically to limit those fears, allowing the Southern Democrats and others more freedom over the running of their own states. The freedom granted to Southern states allowed Southerners once again to pass laws which were detrimental to black civil rights. (And the heritage of the repressive actions and attitudes of these states can be seen in the fact that for many black Americans, there remains the constant threat in some Southern states of voting rights being rescinded or in some way attacked by otherwise anodyne legislation.)

There are further implications of the end of Reconstruction: if the federal government had extended Reconstruction, for one, could the nature of advancements in black civil rights have been sustained? Fairclough agrees with this sentiment; he states that ‘Johnson restored self-government to the South with indecent haste’.[5] This suggests that the role of the federal authorities – in this case the Presidency specifically – was great both in the failure and the eventual end of Reconstruction.

Later on, things got a more violent and more overt; in allowing the KKK to continue its existence by overturning the federal law which banned it, the Supreme Court hindered the cause of civil rights by ceasing federal opposition to one of the most violent racist organisations in the country.[6] The KKK continued to kill and harass African-Americans, and their liberty and freedoms were diminished – especially (and most horrifically) in the cases of those who were executed by lynch mobs without trial.[7] This decision was to have long-term ramifications; here the federal government – specifically the Supreme Court – actively hurt black civil rights in the South.

Of course, there are other considerations at work here, and it might seem a little blasé to declare that the Supreme Court’s decision not to ban a racist organisation precipitated more violence directly; after all, had the ban been upheld, the wellspring of racism which gave the KKK and other organisations the source of their strength would not have vanished. Far from it. Instead, it is entirely possible that this anger, this terrible racial hatred might have manifested itself in other ways; a more politically engaged faction who subscribed to this race-and-nation agenda could – potentially – have had a similarly corrosive effect within Washington to the way in which Democrats stripped voting and civil rights from black Americans in the aftermath of reconstruction. One of the greatest joys of historical study is the fact that the past was at one stage as mutable and malleable as the present seems to those experiencing it right now. This joy is diminished somewhat, though, when the same mutability means that causes can be lost and reasons obscured amid a haze of information.

The Jim Crow laws were another measure enacted in the South after Reconstruction which greatly damaged the lot of black people in the US. These effectively left African-Americans as ‘second class’ citizens.[8] Seven southern states had enacted laws to this effect by 1891. In 1896, the Supreme Court issued its verdict in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The ruling allowed for ‘separate but equal’ treatment of whites and ‘coloureds’. The effects of this ruling were to be ‘devastating’, in the words of Harvey Fireside.[9] Not only did the Jim Crow laws with regard to train travel – which had been challenged in the case – remain in force, there were also other deteriorative effects. This case set a precedent which swiftly led to the adoption of similar legal frameworks in other legislative areas, including an increase in the number of states which segregated train travel, as well as other public spaces.

In the words of C. Vann Woodward, the Jim Crow laws ‘put the authority of the state or city’ into ordinary actions of racism, constituting de facto state approval.[10] The fact that the action, and later inaction, of the federal government – specifically the Supreme Court and then, after adoption, Congress and the Presidency – paved the way to the passage of these laws means that, in this period at least, the role of the federal dimension of American government served more to diminish the progress of civil rights than to advance them.

Before the Second World War, it appeared that federal government was largely uninterested in civil rights. The laissez-faire policies of the 1920s produced presidents who were ‘notably silent on domestic issues.’[11] After a war carried out by the nation as a whole, directed by the federal government, racial equality and civil rights did not advance. (Indeed, some First World War-era anti-American propaganda was to use the persistence of racism as a stick with which to beat the United States; Germany during the Second World War – which was itself, of course, a deeply racist state – took the opposite tack, criticising the US for being too soft on those it considered to be racial undesirables. After the end of the Second World War, the USSR and its allies once again took up criticism of America in the form of propagandising about the continuing lack of racial equality.)

The fact that civil rights did not advance greatly during the first half of the 20th century is – while more a symptom of neglect than malice – the fault of the national authorities to a great extent. As Fairclough surmises: ‘The Great War failed to end white supremacy at home.’[12]

The Second World War brought advancement in the treatment of African-Americans, some of it out of military necessity. David M. Kennedy, seeing things through a lens more economic than political, writes: ‘At the end of the Depression decade … almost 90% of black families still lived in poverty. One in seven workers remained unemployed. By war’s end unemployment was negligible’.[13]

This highlights the terrible conditions for African-Americans in the inter-war years and also the prospect of a better future at war’s end. The wartime economic improvements were largely carried out on the back of federal defence initiatives – ‘500,000 African-Americans fought’ in the war.[14] Fairclough, though, sounds a cautionary note, warning against an overenthusiastic estimation of black America’s optimism in the aftermath of war. ’They had chalked up gains, but had achieved no great breakthrough.’[15] For many, it still seemed that opportunity was lacking. Race relations remained at roughly the same place they had occupied before the world took up arms.[16] Segregation remained (but not in the military after Truman’s Executive Order to that effect[17]); and so did those intent on keeping it. The Executive, through the acquisition and use of special powers, had won a war – and this ‘made it difficult for [Roosevelt] to ignore black demands for equal treatment’;[18] but civil problems remained for the peace. In 1941, voting rights were still effectively restricted: ‘less than 5 percent of [Southern African-Americans] had register[ed] to vote.’[19]

Between 1954 and 1960, a great deal happened in the battle for civil rights. Richard Kluger summed up the effect of Brown v. Board of Education thusly:

[W]hite America many not humiliate African-Americans by setting them apart. … [African-Americans] must not be degraded by their state and their degradation used as an excuse to drive them further down. That is what Brown v. Board of Education achieved.[20]

The verdict was ‘a pivotal moment in southern history’ for African-Americans.[21] The federal government – in this case the Supreme Court – acted unambiguously in favour of the advancement of civil rights. In addition, the reference to state authorities – as opposed to national ones – is vital; this time, things were set straight on a federal level. In addition, it represents a sea-change in the way the Supreme Court operated with regard to civil rights; it no longer acted against African-Americans – at least not in ways which could be witnessed in Plessy v. Ferguson and in the KKK Act furore.

There were still difficulties, however. Fairclough documents how ‘all the subterfuges and delays that the vague wording of Brown had encouraged’ led to state authorities – those Kluger suggests had been beaten – to drag out the implementation of desegregated education. [22] While this may suggest that the vagueness of the ruling bears some blame for its torturous rolling-out across the nation, it seems to me that the delaying actions fought by state legislatures are the fault of exactly that: namely, the states and only the states. The Supreme Court – and the federal government – can be absolved of some blame. Stephen Tuck, however, notes that ‘Brown II gave segregationalists confidence in victory.’[23] Their triumphalism, and their ostentatious displays of power, would be short-lived, but the outward confidence of the forces of segregation did increase in the period after the second verdict. Confident of the silence of many moderates, legal actions were launched against the NAACP; it was even banned in Alabama.[24] But this movement was to be outlasted; Brown v. Board of Education stood sacrosanct – all thanks to the federal Supreme Court.[25]. But the Warren Court did not have an unbroken history of success; it proved, according to Eric Foner, ‘remarkably accommodating’ to views contrary to the civil rights mainstream.[26] It seems that Brown and its successors had a great impact on American educational life, but that it did not set an inexorable course toward the acquisition of civil rights in totality. The actions of President Eisenhower were not positive in this regard; he refused[27] to declare his own view of Brown,[28] only ordering federal troops to assist African-American children in attending school at Little Rock out of political necessity.[29] The Presidency reluctantly acted to further civil rights, but not on the same scale as the Supreme Court; although this is a question of some historical debate, things did not immediately and permanently change in favour of civil rights post-Brown.

In the 1960s, the office of President was to achieve new prominence in the progress of civil rights. Kennedy could be seen as a ‘public advocate’ of civil rights.[30] He initiated a federal programme of ‘conspicuous employment of Negros at high-grade positions’;[31] he pushed the Federal Government to employ more black people, appointing 40 African-Americans to top posts within the administration. Here, we can see the actions of the Executive making a positive change in the lives of African-Americans. (Though of course appointing 40 black people to positions of authority did not solve other endemic problems, such a poverty or persistent racist attitudes throughout the nation.) In addition, Kennedy also put in motion the Civil Rights Bill, which Johnson later continued; but it was held up by Congress. Later, Johnson managed, after Kennedy’s death, to pass the Bill, creating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Fairclough suggests that this legal change was very significant, writing that it went ‘further than anyone would have thought possible 18 months earlier’.[32] Its effects were to be substantial: ‘Almost overnight, the South’s elaborate structure of racial segregation collapsed’.[33] Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act ‘produced a dramatic increase in black voting [and] office holding in the South’.[34] As Ron Field has it, the Act ‘altered the face of American government’.[35] This outcome demonstrates the Executive and Congress working to further the progress of civil rights. In this, the Executive and Congress were tremendously significant.

In light of his political inheritance, Nixon ‘actively enforced civil rights legislation’.[36] The fact that, as Tuck says, this may be seen ‘somewhat surprisingly’ reinforces the importance of the preceding years.[37] That Nixon would be compelled to continue the legacy of previous Presidents and Supreme Court decisions – despite his ‘own thesis re: African-Americans and their genetic inferiority’[38] – demonstrates the importance of federal action undertaken before his election. Indeed, the fact that Carter and Reagan carried on along the same path, despite Reagan’s personal antipathy to market-distorting measures such as affirmative-action, furthers this assertion.[39]

In summation, there was no grand narrative; and even after the events of Brown, presidential actions such as that of Eisenhower can be evaluated, debated and seen to be politically shallow. But still, regardless, there was change: presidents such as Kennedy and Johnson engaged in political activism, even at the cost of the ‘solid South’; Supreme Courts, exemplified in the Warren Court and Brown, made activist decisions, sometimes in substantial contradiction to the prevailing political winds of the time; and Congress – though largely an obstacle to the progress of civil rights – passed laws which were fundamental in its advance. After the end of Reconstruction, the Presidency and the Supreme Court were hostile to the civil rights of African-Americans, but that changed as time wore on; quite obviously the most important decade for federal involvement was the 1960s, and the advances of that decade – when separated from the heroic and immensely consequential actions of individuals such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others – could not have occurred without the support of the Presidency. From the advocacy of Kennedy and Johnson, bulldozing Congressional opposition, to Truman’s unpopular Executive Order desegregating the military, to the reluctant but no less vital action of Eisenhower and Nixon, the Presidency spurred other branches of the federal government towards improving African-American civil rights.

[1] Marable, Manning: How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society, p. 142

[2] Thernstrom, Stephen and Thernstrom, Abigail: America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible

[3] Fairclough, Adam: Better Day Coming, p.6

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 2

[6] Tolnay, Stewart Emory: A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, p.  12

[7] Kirk, John: ‘The Long Road to Equality for African-Americans’, History Today, Vol. 59, Issue. 2, 2009

[8] Bernstein, B. J.: “Plessy v. Ferguson: Conservative sociological jurisprudence”, The Journal of Negro History Vol. 48, No. 3, July 1963, pp. 196-205: ‘[T]he court assured that Jim Crow would become custom and treatment of Negroes as second-class citizens habit.’

[9] Fireside, Harvey: Separate and Unequal, p.10

[10] Woodward, C. Vann: The Strange Career of Jim Crow, p. 107

[11] Rathbone, Mark: ‘The US Presidency and Civil Rights’, 20th Century History Review, Vol. 1, Num. 1, November 2005

[12] Fairclough, Adam: Better Day Coming, p. 109

[13] Kennedy, David M.: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, p. 857

[14] Riches, William T. Martin: The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance, p. 7

[15] Fairclough, Adam: Better Day Coming, p. 201

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 210

[18] Lawson, Steven F. and Payne, Charles: Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968, p. 5

[19] Ibid., p. 6

[20] Kluger, Richard: Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, p. 750

[21] Tuck, Stephen: We Ain’t Where We Ought To Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama, p. 259

[22] Fairclough, Adam: Better Day Coming, p. 325

[23] Tuck, Stephen: We Ain’t Where We Ought To Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama, p. 262

[24] Wendt, Simon: “God, Gandhi, and Guns: The African American Freedom Struggle in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1964-1965”, The Journal of African American History, Vol. 89, No. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 36-56

[25] Klarman, Michael J.: “Brown v. Board of Education: Facts and Political Correctness”, Virginia Law Review, February 1994, p. 185

[26] Foner, Eric: “The Supreme Court and the History of Reconstruction – and Vice-Versa”, Columbia Law Review, November 2012, pp. 1585-1606. He goes on to write: ‘A few rulings from the era of retreat, such as Plessy v. Ferguson, were explicitly overturned (or, at least, in Brown v. Board of Education, held not to be applicable to education); others, like Bradwell v. Illinois, were superseded more quietly. Yet many others continued to enjoy respect, notably the ruling in the Civil Rights Cases, which established a sharp distinction between state action and private discrimination.’

[27] Berry, Jeffrey, Goldman, Jerry and Janda, Kenneth: The Challenge of Democracy: American Government in Global Politics, p. 534

[28] Klarman, Michael J. and Monroe, James: Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement p. 83

[29] Pierce, Alan: Brown v. Board of Education, p. 40

[30] Dionisopoulos, George N. and Goldzwig, Steven R.: “John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Discourse: The Evolution from ‘Principled Bystander’ to Public Advocate”, Communication Monographs Vol. 56, Issue 3, 1989, pp. 179-198

[31] Krislov, Samuel: The Negro in Federal Employment: The Quest for Equal Opportunity, p. 37

[32] Fairclough, Adam: Better Day Coming, p. 282

[33] Ibid.

[34] Jones, Maldwyn, A.: The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607–1980, p.552

[35] Field, Ron: Civil Rights in America 1865-1980, p. 95

[36] Tuck, Stephen: We Ain’t Where We Ought To Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama, p. 355

[37] Ibid.

[38] The diary of Bob Haldman, quoted in Riches, William T. Martin, The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance, p. 95

[39] Ibid., p. 107