Date of Award


Document Type

Union College Only

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



First Advisor

Andrea Foroughi




rights, african, civil, american, new


There has been perhaps no more compelling story in American history than the struggle of African Americans to gain equality and justice. It took a horrific war to end the institution of slavery, but the victories thereafter would have to take place in the political arena, not the battlefield. In 1863-1875 and 1954-1968, two periods of civil rights reform, there were serious efforts to advance the rights of African Americans; however, legislation had a greater impact in the 1960s because reformers could fit their arguments into the context of a post-New Deal, Cold War America characterized by a stronger sense of national identity, a relatively proactive federal government, African Americans’ greater influence in the process, and new forms of media bringing these issues to life. Given how difficult the struggle for justice for African Americans has been, it is critical to understand how and why these reforms finally became law in both Civil Rights eras through a comparative analysis of political leaders views, the roles of the branches of government, and the influence of lobbying and the media. This thesis first explores individual politicians’ stated intentions and beliefs about race in these two periods. Speeches, autobiographies, letters, and recordings of conversations from men such as Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens from the 1860s and Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s and 1960s, reveal that there was a serious desire for reform in both periods, but that differences in ideology and political climates that developed between the two eras, and the impact of African American led lobbying and protests allowed for very different results. Unlike the Republican politicians of the 1860s, whose nationalism focused inward, wanting both to punish and re-admit the states that had seceded, nationally-minded Democratic leaders almost 100 years later fit the expanding federal government of the New Deal and America’s role as a superpower in the Cold War into their arguments about Civil Rights, and as a result made them more compelling and powerful. Beyond the roles of individual leaders, branches of the federal government served or impeded the Civil Rights cause. The aforementioned sources and also court rulings make clear that these institutions operated very differently in these two periods. During Reconstruction, the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress was really the only force for significant reform, unleashing a “revolution” that sought to provide African American equality, punish the South, and secure the party’s political dominance. Presidents Lincoln and Johnson believed the President’s role in these moments of national crisis was to unite the country, and as a result they favored reconciliation over racial justice. And the Supreme Court viewed the Reconstruction amendments and legislation in only the narrowest terms in the late nineteenth century. By the 1950s, the Congress became an obstacle to reform as a shrinking but determined Southern bloc held out in the U.S. Senate, aided by the more undemocratic characteristics of the institution. Nevertheless, a Supreme Court that suddenly found a new framework to interpret the Constitution, and an Executive Branch that had become more powerful and more identifiable as the leader of the American people, fought for Civil Rights legislation with the argument that this is “one country”. Undoubtedly, these politicians did not operate in a vacuum. In the 1960s, unlike the 1860s, a heroic and peaceful Civil Rights movement created a great deal of political space for political reformers to operate within. Also, a growing African American lobby on Capitol Hill put pressure on Congressmen to prioritize Civil Rights, serving as an important balance to the unrelenting Southern bloc. Finally, the differences between visual representations of African Americans in printed media suggest that the immediacy and “realism” of photos in Life and the New York Times in the 1960s swayed public opinion in favor of Civil Rights reform. Ultimately, twentieth-century America and its role as a superpower with a powerful federal government, growing sense of national unity, and new forms of media helped push politicians, institutions, and the American public closer to racial equality.