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Congress, Courts, and the South


Attorney General Brownell's annual report reemphasized the importance of President Eisenhower's civil rights bill, at present stuck in the Mississippi mud of Senator Eastman's Judiciary Committee. Brownell mentioned many letters demanding action by the Justice Department in "shocking" cases where Negroes had been denied legal equality. These letters are, in effect, a public mandate for some form of the administration bill, which extends Justice Department jurisdiction to active prosecution of civil rights abuses.

The Till kidnapping case and murder of two NAACP leaders in Mississippi were flagrant examples of the absence of "equal protection of the laws" for the Negro citizen. In many less sensational cases between Negro and white, Southern courts have consistently meted prejudicial "justice." Unable to act because the cases themselves concern only violations of state laws, the Department has had to remain passive despite popular protest throughout the rest of the country. The present measure would give a legal implement for enforcing the intent of the Constitution, providing a special division of the Justice Department to investigate civil rights complaints as well as the formal basis for intervention under the laws and court decisions.

Opposition is working along two lines. The first is to hold the bill in committee until a filibuster would kill it on the Senate floor. Every day's delay helps, since a crowded schedule at the end of the session will not leave time for Southern oratory to exhaust itself. A second and more insidious tactic, the specialty of Senator Ervin of North Carolina, is to raise doubts as to the constitutionality of the measure in the minds of those non-Southern senators who still fear addition to federal power at the expense of states' rights.

This strategy need not succeed. Since the Supreme Court school decision, public opinion against discriminatory practice in the rest of the country has risen almost as strongly, if more quietly, as that of the South in defense of its long-established customs. As witnessed in the letters Brownell cited, people are no longer willing to live and let civil rights infringements live. President Eisenhower, a popular leader, should use whatever influence he still has with Congress, if necessary, appealing to the nation.

Under pressure from home the Senate should vote to discharge the bill from committee. Likewise, the President should be able to demonstrate that the bill is no more subversive to states' rights than the laws and court decisions it would enforce. It is rather a practical sanction for an interpretation of our Constitutional rights which is already legal but not in effect.

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