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50th Anniversary Celebrated of US Civil Rights Act of 1957

Fifty years ago this week (Thursday, September 27th) the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1957 was signed into law. It was the first of several civil rights acts over the next several decades to protect the rights of African-Americans and other minorities. VOA's Deborah Block has details.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first federal anti-discrimination legislation in 82 years. It came at a time when southern states continued to pass laws segregating blacks and whites -- in schools, lunch counters and other public places.

Then, African-Americans and their white supporters began to object. In 1955, they opposed racial segregation on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. A lone woman -- Rosa Parks -- refused to give up her seat to a white man. Several white liberals in Congress introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Others strongly opposed the initial bill, leading to passage of a watered-down version that President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law.

The legislation ensured African-American voting rights. And it created a division at the U.S. Justice Department to monitor civil rights abuses. The act also set up the first Civil Rights Commission to investigate discrimination.

Kenneth Marcus heads that commission now. "It was important in that it was the first commitment by Congress and the president since the mid-19th century to new civil rights," he says, "and it created an apparatus through which more work would be done in the 1960s."

Marcus says the bill also gave the Civil Rights Commission the ability to help protect minorities. "Our function has been to figure out what problems we have in this country, what legislation do we need, what sort of changes do we need in our federal process, and once those changes have been made, we do oversight to find out how are the civil rights enforcement agencies in this country doing their work."

Marcus says, however, that the bill was weak compared to other civil rights legislation in coming years.

"For instance, the 1957 act did not generally not prohibit employment discrimination in the way the 1964 act would. It did not broadly prohibit voting rights discrimination in a way that was done in 1965. And it generally didn't prohibit housing discrimination which was only done in 1968."

But he says it opened the door to new civil rights laws. "It led to a series of recommendations that in turn led to civil rights statutes in employment, in housing, in voting, in later years, gender equality legislation of various kinds, and more recently disability. So in all these areas in respect to race, national origin, gender, disability, age and other groups, it's led to a wide range of changes.