The liberating impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education sparked open rebellion marked by violence, highlighted by the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, and fierce economic pressure on local blacks for seeking both social integration and the right to vote. President Eisenhower did not help by calling the Brown decision “illegal.” He thus correctly acknowledged that “we are probably going to be busy” on “that question for a while.” In the Congress, 101 Dixiecrats in the House and Senate in March 1956 launched a unified opposition to the decision under the rubric of their “Southern Manifesto,” while the middleclass in the South solidified the rebellion against the Constitution behind a front of “massive resistance,” by creating the White Citizens’ Council, which was generally regarded as manicured Kluxism, and by fiercely expanding their states’ rights rebellion through the provocative practices of “interposition” and “nullification.” Resolutely, nevertheless, Mitchell confidently intensified in Congress the NAACP’s struggle for a permanent FEPC, nondiscrimination protections in federal aid to school construction, in military reserve training and housing bills, for omnibus civil rights legislation, and for other protections through executive action.
In 1955 Eisenhower took another significant step in continuing the FEPC idea by issuing Executive Order 10590, which created the President’s Committee on Government Employment to replace Truman’s Fair Employment Board. The center piece of the nondiscrimination proposals for federal spending programs was the litmus test Powell Amendments, which were prepared by Mitchell and offered in the House by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem.
That year Mitchell also achieved another major objective when, at his urging, Charles Thomas, secretary of the Navy, issued an order prohibiting racial segregation and discrimination in all shore establishments and yard facilities. His order ended segregation in all Navy facilities in the South.
The turning point in the NAACP’s long struggle for civil rights legislation came in 1956 when Attorney General Herbert Brownell, at Mitchell’s behest adopted recommendations of the report of Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights, and proposed measures to Congress to (Part II) broaden the functions of the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department beyond its original 1939 scope, and to (Part III) provide protections for individuals’ Fourteenth Amendment rights from violations by other private citizens. The civil rights package Brownell proposed to Congress also included Part I, a provision to create a Civil Rights Commission; and Part IV, a provision giving the attorney general authority to seek injunctions in court to protect Fifteenth Amendment voting rights. Also marking 1956 as a bellwether year for civil rights was the re-election of Lyndon Baines Johnson and his elevation in Senate as majority leader. Although Mitchell and Johnson differed fundamentally on civil rights, they respected each other’s political acumen.
Mitchell’s strategy was characterized by his creation of bipartisan coalitions that were composed of such lawmakers in the Senate as William Knowland, the notable conservative minority leader from California, and liberal Democratic standard-bearer Paul Douglas of Illinois; and, in the House of Emanuel Celler, a liberal New York Democrat, and William McCulloch of Ohio, another conservative Republican. The result of this delicate balance and brutish maneuvering was passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first such measure since Reconstruction. Though the compromises that the wily Johnson engineered gutted Part III and other key features of the first such measure in 82 years, Mitchell welcomed it as a great step forward in a struggle he had taken to a new plateau. The act was primarily a voting rights measure, but it provided for the establishment of the United States Civil Rights Commission, which Mitchell ensured reinforced the NAACP policies, and elevated the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department to a much-strengthened Civil Rights Division.
That year Vice President Richard M. Nixon provided crucial help when, as presiding officer of the Senate, he made a key ruling that enabled the civil rights forces to by-pass the Judiciary Committee, whose chairman was James O. Eastland of Mississippi, and send the administration’s bill directly to the floor for debate. Had the bill been sent to Eastland’s committee he would have killed it. The result was that, even though Dixiecrat standard-bearer Strom Thurmond of South Carolina later broke the no-filibuster agreement Johnson had engineered among the southerners, the Senate on August 29 brought to reality Mitchell’s dream. He said: “At last the Congress has assumed some of its responsibility in the field of civil rights. I predict that the constructive results and continued effort by all of us will encourage the nation’s law making body to carry on the good work until the full job is done.” He declared that “law, logic, morality and all other American concepts of decency” were “on our side” and would help African Americans win their historic struggle for equality.
In an attempt to get Congress to continue what he called this “good work,” Mitchell launched a struggle to strengthen the 1957 Act that led to passage of the 1960 Civil Rights Act. Its main provisions were: (1) criminal penalties for impeding or interfering with the exercise of rights or the performance of duties under a federal court decree; (2) criminal penalties for certain acts in connection with the burning or bombing of homes, schools, places of worship and other buildings; (3) a requirement that election records be preserved for federal use and inspection in connection with voting discrimination complaints; (4) authorization of education for children of military personnel in areas where schools were closed because of state action; and (5) the creation of a voter referee plan recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice to aid in registration and voting in areas where there was a pattern or practice of racial discrimination. The 1960 Act, however, was merely a weak amendment to the 1957 Act, thus it presaged the subsequent epic struggles in Congress.