Francis R. Valeo
Secretary of the Senate
Valeo recounts the Senate’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
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VALEO: As you looked around the Senate (after Kennedy’s death), there were really no changes in the membership and probably no great likelihood of any changes in votes. So the outlook at that point was still rather grim for civil rights. Mansfield, and certainly I would have concurred, if I didn’t recommend it, was persuaded there was only one way in which this issue was going to be won and that was by getting, at that time, sixty-seven votes, which was what was needed for cloture. That was not going to be an easy task. You couldn't possibly do it without Dirksen's cooperation. You had to kind of envision a line in the Republican party in which on any issue, which again in the context of the time would have been called a liberal issue—a significant liberal issue—you could count on six or seven Republicans. Well, with the Democratic majority and losses in the South you could pass a lot of legislation on that basis. But if you needed sixty-seven votes you had something that was entirely different. You were talking then about midwestern, western Republicans, and Dirksen above all, as the leader, because a lot of people went the way Dirksen went on the Republican side. On liberal issues they were normally on the conservative side, normally against it, but in an extreme situation they might be persuaded to go in the other direction.
Again, the details in which the bill came up elude me a little bit, except that it was suddenly decided, I think on the basis of what was happening in Atlanta and Birmingham and other places, that this could wait no longer, that it had to move, and if it didn't the country was going to have some very serious problems, in the South in particular. So the decision was made in the administration and conveyed to Mansfield, who was still reluctant to face the issue, that it had to be faced and it had to be done. And I’m trying to think if it was in the second session of that—it would have been in '64, so it would have been the second session of that Congress. And the decision was made early in the Congress, or perhaps not too long after Kennedy was assassinated, that we had to go this way, and one way or another, we'd have to make the attempt. And it was going to be win or lose but we had to make the attempt.
The question came up of how you were going to do this in the Senate. I wrote a memorandum on this—I don't know if it's in the record—on an approach. By this time I'd learned a little bit about how the Senate worked on the floor and I felt myself competent to do that kind of thing and to offer that kind of advice. So I wrote a memorandum on how the thing would be approached, if we had any chance of doing it, taking into consideration the leader's determination that it was not going to be done by anything other than a cloture vote, unless there was a yield on it before, which was highly unlikely. And having watched the previous years, two debates on civil rights, and studied very carefully how Russell, who was the leader of the southern forces in the opposition to it, worked, I decided that what he was doing was—he hadbecause of the alliance that he enjoyed with the Senate rules, which are great rules, providing you assume that time is endless and that everybody will be gentlemanly and not excessively use time. Well, if you accept those two premises, then they work fine. But obviously, they are easily manipulated without violating them. It's just the way they are set up to protect every individual in the fullest exercise of his rights, and if all people choose to exercise their right fully, or even a half a dozen, the Senate is in trouble. And to hold up the Senate in that period you didn't need more than seven or eight members in agreement, and that only had to do with questions of exhaustion, because there was no way in which the Senate could pass a measure which seven or eight senators were determined to oppose until their death, if you will—at least the legislative death.
So the way Russell worked it—and he knew the rules well—he was a delightful man in that respect. He knew what he was doing on the floor at all times. And he did it with a certain amount of grace and a certain amount of aggressiveness. But basically he was a graceful man and he knew how to handle himself on the floor without antagonizing anyone deeply. But he could put everybody in knots because of his knowledge of the rules. I don't know how many times people like Bill Douglas—not Bill Douglas—Paul Douglas and others would think they'd found an answer in the rules and they'd come forward and try to hit Russell head on, and then all of a sudden they'd find themselves flattened on the legislative ground again, because there was no way in which you could beat the rules against a determined group—a small group of opposition.
But it occurred to me the only way—and the thing was that Russell even made—in the business of beating them, he always looked as though he was being badgered and beaten by them. And that was the secret of his effectiveness. Because he would say, "Here we are, holding out, just a group of people trying to make the Senate see the light, and we are being pushed and pilloried." Well, of course the exact opposite was true. The six or seven who were in opposition were pushing and pillorying the overwhelming majority, but they didn't realize fully that was happening. In the previous Civil Rights bill that I had watched, they’d come out in pajamas. He’d have them there all night long, and he’d be home sleeping. All he needed was two people on the floor and they needed fifty-one.
So the key to it became the holding of a quorum on the floor at all times. If you could do that, it seemed to me, you could focus sufficient attention—public attention—on this to make the public realize that the situation wasn't at all as it was being tainted, that these five people were winning a great victory over the other seventy. But you could paint them as really serious obstructionists of a very important measure. So my first recommendation to the majority leader was that they organize a quorum for the Senate. You could only, again, do this with Dirksen's cooperation, because there weren't enough Democrats to allow for attrition, to allow for occasional situations in which they could not be there, to keep the quorum there at all times.
Read Valeo' full account of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.