Republicans passed the first Civil Rights Act, in 1866

Thanks to Republicans beginning to appreciate the heritage of our Grand Old Party, it has become better known that Republicans in Congress supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act much more than did the Democrats. Indeed, the legislator most responsible for breaking the Democrat filibuster was a Republican senator, Everett Dirksen.

And now, the question that should be before us: How did that landmark legislation come to be?  The answer to that is a source of pride for all Republicans today.

The origin of the 1964 Civil Rights Act can be traced back to the Reconstruction era. That was when the Republican Party enacted the first civil rights act ever, the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Never heard of it? Democrat history professors would rather you didn’t. With that law, Republicans took a big step toward making Abraham Lincoln’s vision for “a new birth of freedom” a reality.

Ominously, the assassination of the Great Emancipator had left the presidency to his Democrat vice president, Andrew Johnson.  Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-IL), co-author of the 13th Amendment banning slavery, also wrote the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Republican support was nearly unanimous, while Democrats were unanimously opposed.  This would be the first time Congress overrode a presidential veto of a significant bill.

The law conferred U.S. citizenship on all African-Americans, according them “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Despite Democrat objections, Republicans made sure African-Americans had the right to own property, engage in business, sign contracts and file lawsuits.

Andrew Johnson refused to enforce this law in the southern states, so it had little effect there. However, many racially discriminatory laws in the North were repealed or struck down as a result.

Sixty-four of eighty Democrats in the House of Representatives had voted against the 13th Amendment. And so, Republicans feared that once the southern states were back in the Union, a Democrat majority along with a racist Democrat in the White House might undo all they had accomplished for African-Americans. What if they repealed the new Civil Rights Act?

To keep that law safe from a future Democrat Congress, Republicans enshrined its precepts in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. Another point of pride for the GOP is that Republicans voted unanimously for the 14th Amendment, while Democrats voted unanimously against it.

Republicans followed this success with several more civil rights acts during the Ulysses Grant administration, including one that effectively outlawed the Ku Klux Klan. The next step was the brainchild of one of our party’s greatest heroes, Senator Charles Sumner. He wrote the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which anticipated the 1964 Civil Rights Act with its ban on racial discrimination in public accommodations. He had been pushing for the bill for years. On his deathbed, he told a former Attorney General: “You must take care of the civil rights bill – my bill, the civil rights bill – don’t let it fail.”

Though the law came a decade too late to have much of an impact in the Democrat-controlled South, many discriminatory practices in northern states were eliminated. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1883. The majority opinion declaring that 14th Amendment guarantees did not extend to acts by private citizens and businesses was the reason the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have to be based more tenuously on the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Nine decades would pass before the Republican Party was able to enact further civil rights legislation. President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the 1957 Civil Rights Act, whose author was a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Enforcement was improved by the GOP’s 1960 Civil Rights Act.

Three years later, Republican congressmen introduced a bill guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations. The Kennedy administration countered with a weaker version of this bill, which then became the basis for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Sadly, it was Democrat defiance of the civil rights movement that postponed so much progress, from 1866 until 1964. To quote my own book, “The more we Republicans know about the history of our party, the more the Democrats will worry about the future of theirs.”

This article is adapted from Back to Basics for the Republican Party, Michael Zak’s history of the GOP from the Republican point of view. See www.grandoldpartisan.com for more information.

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