This Day in Black History: Aug. 29, 1957

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Posted: 08/29/2013 12:00 AM EDT

On Aug. 29, 1957, Congress passed the nation's first Civil Rights Act in more than 80 years. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Sept. 9.

The legislation empowered the federal government to prosecute anyone trying to deny others the right to vote, in part, establishing the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department. It also created a federal commission on civil rights.

Several Southern Democrats opposed the bill, fearing the end of Jim Crow laws, but reluctantly agreed to not block it, all except Sen. Strom Thurmond. The South Carolina representative took extraordinary efforts to block the act's passage through the use of a filibuster, a legislative procedure by which he protested the bill on the Senate floor for more than 24 hours.

Thurmond reportedly took a steam bath to eliminate the need to use the restroom and armed himself with cough drops and malted milk tablets. His rant began on Aug. 28 and ended 24 hours and 18 minutes later on Aug. 29, breaking the previous filibuster record of 22 hours and 26 minutes.

Black leaders also were divided by the legislation. Nobel Peace Prize winner and U.N. diplomat Ralph Bunche said that no bill would be better than the "sham" Congress passed. But Bayard Rustin, founder of the Congress on Racial Equality, believed it was an important symbol and a first step toward further civil rights legislation.

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(Photo: CBS /Landov)

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