Race emerged as one of the more pressing issues confronting the nation’s dominant political institutions from the post-Reconstruction era through the fifties. The major cleavages existent in American politics during these early years were defined to a great extent in racial terms. The states were divided along racial lines. The two major national political parties were as well. Also, the dissension caused by race was itself of considerable importance within the larger political arena—that is, the regional and partisan political differences concerning race were among the most significant disagreements driving American politics. The outcomes yielded by the politics of race during the early civil rights years were enormous. Specifically, the fact that race was a hot political issue at the time had a major carry-over effect into formal governance at the national level, structuring in uniquely different ways the how’s of federal policymaking. The racial antagonisms prevalent during the time also shaped the what’s of civil rights policymaking.
The civil rights policy goals of the early years were modest in comparison to later aims. The rights to vote and engage in protest activities were the two main concerns of the 1957 and 1960 congressional civil rights proceedings. It was believed that achieving these aims would lead to the realization of greater minority opportunities in other areas, such as employment, housing, and education. With regard to political strategy, it was also believed that, given the nature of the times and the political context, securing equal political rights was an easy goal, at least when compared to the more controversial, socioeconomic goals that leftist civil rights advocates had in mind.