U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Identification: Independent, bipartisan federal commission created to monitor civil rights throughout the United States

Date: Established on September 9, 1957

Also known as: USCC

Significance: The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a federal commission tasked with protecting the civil rights of all people residing in the United States. It investigates and studies and issues reports on various types of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, age, disability, or national origin. Created as a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the commission was originally intended to be temporary, but Congress has repeatedly renewed its mandate.

The commission was established as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on September 9, 1957. It originally contained six members, who were appointed by the president and approved by Congress. A 1983 reorganization increased that number to eight. The commission’s primary mission was to investigate and to ensure the voting rights of African Americans. Indeed, its very first assignment was to collect evidence of racial discrimination in voting rights in the South. Since its creation, the commission has been restructured under the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Acts of 1983, 1991, and the Civil Rights Commission Amendments Act of 1994. In addition to its early investigation of minority voting rights, the commission also held hearings on thousands of cases of housing discrimination in major U.S. cities and the implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on public school desegregation in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The commission’s investigations, hearings, and research became foundational components of the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The commission performs three basic tasks to protect civil rights:

  • investigating citizen allegations of voter discrimination by reason of race, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or by fraud 
  • collecting and analyzing information relating to discrimination or denials of equal protection of the law under the U.S. Constitution or in the administration of justice 
  • reviewing federal laws and policies with respect to discrimination and denial of equal rights 

In carrying out its tasks, the commission issues public service announcements to discourage discrimination, holds hearings and issues subpoenas for documentation and witnesses at such hearings, and provides investigative reports to the president and his top cabinet officials, including the U.S. attorney general, regarding issues of discrimination. Because the commission has no real enforcement powers, it refers countless complaints to various federal, state, or local government enforcement agencies for appropriate legal action.

In 2009, the commission still had eight commissioners, who serve six-year staggered terms. Four commissioners are appointed directly by the president, two by the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, and two by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. To avoid issues related to political ideologies, no more than four commissioners may be from the same political party. Furthermore, each pair of Senate and House appointees cannot be fromthe same political party. The president, with the consent of the majority of commission members, can designate a chair, vice chair, and staff director. Additionally, the commission appoints fifty-one state advisory committees to serve as watchdogs in the fifty states and the District of Columbia.

Paul M. Klenowski

Further Reading

  • Dulles, Rhea. The Civil Rights Commission, 1957- 1965. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1968. 
  • Jackson, Donald W., and James W. Riddlesperger Jr. “The Eisenhower Administration and the 1957 Civil Rights Act.” In Reexamining the Eisenhower Presidency, edited by Shirley Anne Warshaw. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. 

See also: Alabama; Civil Rights movement; Japanese American Citizens League; Ku Klux Klan; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Washington, D.C.; Women’s movements.

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