The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Long Road to Justice: The Civil Rights Division at 50


My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late.

- Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, 1948 2

Until the late nineteenth century, African Americans in the United States, particularly in the American South, were regarded both politically and socially as second-class citizens. Though the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had been ratified, they were not being implemented with the full force of the law. Moreover, the courts and the federal government had nullified much of the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Acts. 3

In 1939, the Justice Department established a Civil Rights Section within its Criminal Division for criminal prosecutions of peonage and involuntary servitude cases, as well as for prosecutions under the remaining Civil Rights Acts. 4 The Section was given limited authority and a small staff. Fighting a World War against Nazism, however, made it increasingly difficult for the United States to defend racial discrimination within its own borders, especially while African-American troops were committed to the struggle for anti-discrimination abroad. The return of Black veterans to the home front provided local leadership and a political framework for civil rights protest that the federal government could no longer ignore.

President Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. Its 1947 report, To Secure These Rights, recommended comprehensive civil rights legislation as well as the creation of a Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department. 5 Although President Eisenhower did not embrace civil rights as a political priority within the Administration, Attorney General Herbert Brownell advocated additional governmental efforts. Brownell collaborated with civil rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, to propose a civil rights bill that would require both civil remedies and criminal penalties for civil rights violations.

On September 9, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. While the Act could not implement everything necessary to protect the political, social, and economic rights of African Americans, it did authorize three important features: a position for an Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights within the Department of Justice; the creation of the United States Commission on Civil Rights; and the use of civil suits against voting discrimination.

On December 9, 1957, Attorney General William P. Rogers signed AG Order No. 155-57, formally establishing the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. In the 50 years since its creation, the Division has been instrumental in promoting equal justice for all Americans.

The following report discusses the efforts of the Civil Rights Division over the past 50 years to eliminate discrimination in the areas of education, employment, housing, voting, criminal justice, and public accommodations. We provide the historical context for the Division's involvement in each area, outline the Division's landmark achievements, and assess the challenges it currently faces in securing equal and impartial administration of justice under the law. Finally, we provide recommendations for the Division to consider as it sets out to achieve its mission of effective civil rights enforcement over the next 50 years. We invite the Division, Congress, and the public to examine and reflect on this report as a piece of an ongoing dialogue regarding how best to secure and protect the civil rights of the American people.

2. Humphrey, Hubert H. "1948 Democratic National Convention Address" (1948).

3. The Justice Department was limited to criminal prosecutions under these statutes. From the Civil War to 1940, the Justice Department brought only two prosecutions for racial violence, one in 1882 and one in 1911.

4. In addition to civil rights cases, the Civil Rights Section was also responsible for administering the criminal provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Safety Appliance Act, the Hatch Act, and certain other statutes. It also processed most of the mail received by the federal government relating to civil rights issues.

5. The Truman Committee believed that increasing the level of federal civil rights enforcement from a Section within the Criminal Division to its own separate Division "would give the federal civil rights enforcement program prestige, power, and efficiency that it now lacks." President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights, 152.

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