Not only does August Wilson’s Fences deal with the difficult relationship between fathers and sons, and with the disappointment and struggles all people deal with, it also discusses fundamental issues of equality and decency. These questions were at the heart of the American discourse in the 1950s and 1960s, creating radical changes in society.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the year in which Fences takes place, was one of the first major pieces of legislation dealing with racial equality since Reconstruction after the Civil War ended in 1865.
Despite the freedoms promised by the Northern victory in the Civil War, the spectre of Jim Crow laws – the rules that codified separation of the races – haunted African-Americans throughout the nation, but most viciously in the South.
The Civil Rights Act was primarily intended to make sure that African-Americans had equal access to the vote – only about 20 percent of African-Americans were registered to vote at the time the law went into effect. As Jim Crow took hold in the South, discriminatory voting practices, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, and outright intimidation disenfranchised black voters. When the Supreme Court desegregated schools in 1954 through the decision Brown vs. Board of Education, some Southern cities launched an onslaught of violence against African-Americans, including bombings and lynchings.
President Dwight Eisenhower pushed for fairness at the polls as a fundamental American right. The legislation would allow states to set its own individual election rules, while the federal government would assure voter protections in elections for national office, like the presidency. In addition, there would be the formation of a two-year commission to examine civil rights issues.
However, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, understood the division the law would cause amongst the Democratic party – very broadly speaking, Northern legislators supported the nascent civil rights movement, while Southern legislators did not – and sought ways to lessen the bill’s impact while allowing it to move forward. Southern legislators on the Senate Judiciary Committee gutted aspects of the bill in the name of states’ rights and limited the ability of federal government to enforce those aspects of the bill in place. The commission was almost toothless from the start, with congressional confirmation of commissioners delayed for months and funding almost nonexistent.
While the law was limited in scope and enforcement, it did indicate for the first time in almost a century a willingness on the part of the federal government to take a more active role in promulgating civil rights. Without this first step, it would not have been possible for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, a more substantive piece of legislation, to occur.
— Steve Scarpa