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Telegram from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders to Representative Emmanuel Celler of New York, February 15, 1957

Many Southern states resisted school integration and obstructed blacks’ efforts to vote. African Americans demanded justice through demonstrations, sit-ins, and other nonviolent actions as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Civil rights leaders pressed Congress to act, telegraphing Representative Emmanuel Cellar of New York, House Judiciary Committee chairman and author of a 1957 civil rights bill.

Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

Telegram from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Telegram from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Telegram from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Congress and the Court Secure Civil Rights

Congress and the Supreme Court have used their distinct but overlapping powers to define the legal basis of civil rights. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, violent intimidation and local Jim Crow laws continued to restrict black people, particularly in the South. Civil rights activists challenged those conditions, and in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. Over the next decade, Congress passed landmark legislation to end segregation and ensure all citizens may freely exercise their civil rights.

We must come to see with the jurists of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963