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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: July 2020

4 - Civil Rights and Populism


The 1957 Civil Rights Act (CRA) was the first significant civil rights legislation adopted by the Congress since the end of Reconstruction. It was passed in the face of seemingly intractable disagreement and very long odds of success. Many otherwise liberal Democrats were still weak on civil rights, while many otherwise conservative Republicans were strong civil rights supporters. Within the political context of the New Deal, the Democratic Party’s coalition was held together by two contradictory policy goals: an economically liberal populist instinct combined with the corrupting political imperative of home rule for the white Southern wing of the party. The construction of majority support for the passage of the 1957 Act thus provides a preview of the New Deal Democratic Party’s demise, as well as its replacement with a new party system. The 1957 Act constitutes a watershed moment in the evolution of American politics, even though it failed to produce any dramatic change that would revolutionize the legal landscape of racial discrimination in the United States.