June 10, 1964
Civil Rights Filibuster Ended
At 9:51 on the morning of June 10, 1964, Senator Robert C. Byrd completed an address that he had begun 14 hours and 13 minutes earlier. The subject was the pending Civil Rights Act of 1964, a measure that occupied the Senate for 60 working days, including seven Saturdays. A day earlier, Senate whips Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Thomas Kuchel (R-CA), the bill's floor managers, concluded they had the 67 votes required at that time to end the debate.
The Civil Rights Act provided protection of voting rights; banned discrimination in public facilities—including private businesses offering public services—such as lunch counters, hotels, and theaters; and established equal employment opportunity as the law of the land.
As Senator Byrd took his seat, House members, former senators, and others—150 of them—vied for limited standing space at the back of the chamber. With all gallery seats taken, hundreds waited outside in hopelessly extended lines.
Georgia Democrat Richard Russell offered the final arguments in opposition. Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, who had enlisted the Republican votes that made cloture a realistic option, spoke for the proponents with his customary eloquence. Noting that the day marked the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's nomination to a second term, the Illinois Republican proclaimed, in the words of Victor Hugo, "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come." He continued, "The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here!"
Never in history had the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill. And only five times in the 47 years since the cloture rule was established had the Senate agreed to cloture for any measure.
The clerk proceeded to call the roll. When he reached "Mr. Engle," there was no response. A brain tumor had robbed California's mortally ill Clair Engle of his ability to speak. Slowly lifting a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby signaling his affirmative vote. Few of those who witnessed this heroic gesture ever forgot it. When Delaware's John Williams provided the decisive 67th vote, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield exclaimed, "That's it!"; Richard Russell slumped; and Hubert Humphrey beamed. With six wavering senators providing a four-vote victory margin, the final tally stood at 71 to 29. Nine days later the Senate approved the act itself—producing one of the 20th century's towering legislative achievements.
Graham, Hugh Davis. The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Mann, Robert. The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996.