See a Magnum Photos gallery of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
On Sept. 9, 1959, the commission released its first report, a 668-page tome, based on a year of field reports and inquests, concluding that the nation's treatment of its 18 million black citizens was "an affront to human dignity" and a violation of "American principles and historic purposes."
Coming five years after Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered public schools to be desegregated with "deliberate speed," the report came as a shock to many white Americans, who—precisely because of segregation—were unaware of this dark side of their nation's life. And for many black Americans, the confirmation of their everyday perceptions helped galvanize them to further action. (The first sit-in, at a segregated diner in Greensboro, N.C., took place five months later.)
There were also many white people, especially in the South, who regarded the report as an affront. The six-member commission's three Southern members issued a dissent, objecting to the report's claim that the Constitution guaranteed equal protection under the law. (The 14th Amendment may have done that, they noted, but not the Framers' original document.)
When the commission came up for its two-year renewal on Sept. 14, five days after the release of the report, the Senate's two most outspoken segregationists, James Eastland of Mississippi and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, railed in opposition. (During the debate on the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Thurmond had mounted a filibuster lasting 24 hours and 18 minutes, still the longest on record.)
In a colloquy on the floor, reported in the next day's New York Times, Eastland asked, "Isn't a segregated life the proper life? Isn't it the law of nature?" Thurmond answered, "That's the way God made the races."
When Sen. Jacob Javits of New York advocated that the commission be allowed to continue its work, Eastland objected. In the South, there were no "gangs roaming the streets, juvenile delinquency, knifings, cuttings, rape, murder filth," like Javits had in New York City, he said. Yet Southern senators weren't making a fuss about his problems. Added Thurmond: "Let the poor South alone."
The bill passed, and the commission's life was extended, in part because Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was due to arrive in Washington the next day. Racism was America's deepest scar in the Cold War competition, a scab that Moscow's propagandists constantly and gleefully picked at. Even some Southern senators, acknowledged that America's standing would be damaged if Congress were debating racial equality while the leader of world communism was in town.
In its report, the commission had called on the president to send federal registrars to precincts where county or state officials were preventing black Americans from registering to vote. This was one of the report's main recommendations. Civil rights leaders made a big deal of it. But President Dwight Eisenhower openly rejected the idea, and Vice President Richard Nixon gave no sign that he felt otherwise. Nixon, of course, was the Republican nominee in the 1960 presidential election. His Democratic opponent, John F. Kennedy, didn't say much about the idea, either. But when Martin Luther King was arrested and locked up in the Birmingham jail, at least Kennedy called King's wife with words of support.
The contrast between Kennedy's call and Eisenhower's dismissal of the commission's main proposal for action was widely reported. The election was of course very close. Robert Dallek, in his biography of JFK, argues that black support for Kennedy, especially in Northern cities such as Chicago, may well have supplied his margin of victory.
Sometimes the gates of history swing on small hinges, as the saying goes. The 1957 Civil Rights Act was a preposterously small hinge that helped swing open a very wide gate. It's not out of the question that a pared-down health care bill might do the same.