Civil Rights Division

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Created by Order of the Attorney General No. 3204, February 3, 1939, the Civil Rights Section (originally named the Civil Rights Unit) of the Justice Department became the federal government's principal civil rights litigation unit. The order creating the Section called for a study of federal law to assess its utility in enforcing civil rights. The study, which stated the legal basis and goals of the Section's early civil rights enforcement efforts, suggested the need for test cases to resolve uncertainties about the scope and constitutionality of the only statutory weapons then available to the Section, the surviving Reconstruction-era civil rights legislation. The Section's test cases include united states v. classic (1941), an important precedent establishing authority to prosecute offenses relating to primary elections, and screws v. united states (1945), which allowed the application of the criminal provisions of the civil rights act of 1866 to misconduct by state police officers.

The Civil Rights Section's growth reflects a general increase in national concern with civil rights matters. As of 1947, the Section is reported never to have had more than eight or ten lawyers and professional workers on its staff. In 1950, the section more than doubled in size. The civil rights act of 1957 upgraded the Section to the status of Division by providing for an additional assistant attorney general. By 1965, the Division had eighty-six attorneys and ninety-nine clerical workers. By 1978, there were 178 attorneys and 203 support personnel.

The Division's principal activity consists of litigation. It enforces the civil rights act of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968, the voting rights act of 1965, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the 1866 act's criminal provisions, laws prohibiting peonage and involuntary servitude, and various other laws. It does so through direct actions or through amicus curiae appearances in private cases. An administration's civil rights priorities are reflected in the categories of cases emphasized by the Division. In the early 1960s the Division emphasized voting rights cases. From 1965 to 1967, desegregation of education was its priority issue. By 1967, employment litigation became a priority item. Creation of a Task Force on Sex Discrimination in 1977 reflected a growing concern with sex discrimination.

Theodore Eisenberg


Carr, Robert K. 1947 Federal Protection of Civil Rights: Quest for a Sword. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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Civil Rights Division

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Civil Rights Division