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Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Senate and Civil Rights: Cloture and Final Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Photo: Post-cloture Group

To pass a civil rights bill in 1964, the Senate proponents of that bill developed a three-part strategy. First, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield maneuvered the bill away from the Judiciary Committee and made it the Senate’s pending business. Second, a bipartisan legislative team of senators and staff, led by Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey and Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel, developed a plan to defeat a well-organized filibuster. Finally, they enlisted the aid of Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Only Dirksen could provide the Republican votes needed to invoke cloture and bring about passage of the bill. “The bill can’t pass unless you get Ev Dirksen,” President Lyndon Johnson told Hubert Humphrey. “You get in there to see Dirksen. You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen. You listen to Dirksen.”

In an era when there were many factional divisions within both political parties, the biggest headaches for Democratic leader Mike Mansfield often came not from Republicans but from the conservative bloc of his own party caucus. The filibuster that threatened to derail the civil rights bill in 1964 was not led by the opposition party, but by an opposing faction within the majority party. To invoke cloture on the civil rights bill, Democratic proponents of the bill needed strong Republican support. If the bipartisan team could gain the support of Dirksen, a small-government conservative from Illinois, they might win over other conservatives.

This presented Everett Dirksen with a dilemma. It was a presidential election year and, as one historian commented, Dirksen was asked “to deliver Republican votes in support of a Democratic president who could not bring along enough of his own party to seal the deal.” As the long civil rights debate unfolded, it did so with the backdrop of presidential primaries. The last thing the Senate’s Republican leader should be doing, many argued, was to provide the Democratic administration with a major legislative victory, but Dirksen, a proud Republican from the Land of Lincoln, was determined to preserve the Republican legacy inherited from the Great Emancipator. In addition, there were liberal and moderate Republicans who were deeply committed to the cause of civil rights, and senators such as Jacob Javits of New York urged Dirksen to take immediate action. On the other hand, staunch conservatives like Bourke Hickenlooper of Iowa fought Dirksen every step of the way. Dominating the GOP caucus, many conservatives believed the civil rights bill represented an unprecedented intrusion by the state into the daily lives of Americans.

By late February 1964, as the bipartisan team set to work, Dirksen began tinkering with the bill. Over the next three months, the Republican leader, meeting daily with Humphrey or Kuchel but largely avoiding his caucus, suggested a host of amendments divided into categories of technical and substantive. The lesser amendments corrected or clarified language, while substantive amendments brought compromise among competing views. Throughout the negotiations, Dirksen kept his own counsel. “What is Ev Dirksen up to?” asked the Los Angeles Times. Dirksen is “the master of obscure intention,” wrote the Washington Post, which will be “revealed only in his own good time.” While Dirksen worked with the bipartisan team, key staff negotiated with individual Republican senators.

In early April Dirksen attended the Republicans’ weekly policy luncheon and presented a set of 40 draft amendments. Conservatives, suspicious of the leader’s behind-the-scenes deal-making, expressed only reluctant support. The liberals simply rebelled, accusing Dirksen of watering down the House-passed bill. As the meeting broke up, it was clear that the Republican caucus remained divided. Reassuringly, Senator Humphrey expressed optimism. Dirksen’s “not trying to be destructive,” Humphrey commented. “He’s trying to be constructive.”

The debate in the Senate Chamber continued, as Dirksen produced more amendments while constantly testing the waters looking for support. Details were discussed, agreements were made, and deals were struck as Dirksen worked to gain votes for cloture while maintaining the integrity of the House-passed bill. As Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper saw it, Dirksen’s proposal would not weaken the bill, but would be “a substantial amendment in developing sentiment for the bill, not only here, but throughout the country. It is going to have appeal.”

After meeting with President Johnson at the White House on April 29, Dirksen produced another round of amendments. “In their totality,” wrote Dirksen’s biographer, “these modifications reflected flawlessly Dirksen’s legislative style—perfecting a bill by exhaustive study and attention to detail.” It was a legislative dance, designed to maintain majority support while adapting where necessary to gain crucial minority votes. Finally, on May 13, the end appeared to be in sight. “There comes a moment,” Dirksen remarked, “when there’s a feeling in the air that the time has come for action, and we’re about there.” Dirksen formally endorsed the bill. “We’ve got a much better bill than anyone ever dreamed possible,” Humphrey confided to President Johnson. “We haven’t weakened this bill one damn bit; in fact in some places we’ve improved it.”

In mid-May both party caucuses began discussing Dirksen’s revised bill. Meeting with Republicans, Dirksen carefully read through the bill, title by title, explaining each and every change. These were not placid meetings, wrote a historian. Often, the “room was filled with a cacophony of voices raising questions and objections and doubts,” but in the end it looked as though Dirksen had his votes. On May 26, Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield standing by, introduced the revised version (the “Dirksen-Mansfield Substitute”) of H.R. 7152. “We have now reached the point where there must be action,” Dirksen told his colleagues. “I doubt very much whether in my whole legislative lifetime any measure has received so much meticulous attention.” It became known as “Dirksen’s Bill,” but it was the carefully crafted product of months of bipartisan cooperation. One daunting hurdle remained—cloture.

A cloture motion is the only procedural means available in the Senate to forcibly end debate (including a filibuster) and bring about a vote on a bill, resolution, or nomination, by placing a time limit on further consideration. Although cloture motions have become common in the modern Senate, they were rare in the decades following adoption of the first cloture rule in 1917. From 1917 to early 1964, the Senate introduced 28 cloture motions (including 11 on civil rights bills) and successfully invoked cloture only five times in those 47 years. Not once did it invoke cloture on a civil rights bill. As these statistics illustrate, opposition to cloture remained strong, and not just among segregationists who opposed civil rights legislation. Some senators, particularly those from small or sparsely populated states, opposed all cloture motions on principle, viewing them as a “gag rule” to squelch debate. A number of senators had never agreed to invoke cloture, even when they supported passage of the bill. As Dirksen explained, “Senate aversion to cloture is traditional.” As the civil rights debate continued, the bill’s supporters understood very well the tremendous odds they faced.

“We have now reached the point where there must be action,” Dirksen told his colleagues on May 26 as he introduced the compromise bill. Dirksen’s substitute quickly gained support from key representatives in the House, particularly from Ohio representative William McCullough, who had been so instrumental in House passage of the bill. It also won tempered praise from the Justice Department and from civil rights activists. In the Senate, however, the filibuster continued. As Dirksen reported to President Johnson, Georgia senator Richard Russell and other members of the southern caucus were determined “to keep the show going.” To stop that show, the leaders needed 67 votes, or two-thirds of the U.S. Senate.

Mansfield’s Democratic caucus had 67 members in 1964, but barely 40 expressed strong support for cloture. In addition to the 22 southern senators leading the filibuster, several Democratic senators, most noteworthy Carl Hayden of Arizona, the Senate’s president pro tempore, opposed cloture on principle. At best, Mansfield and Humphrey hoped to get 42 Democrats. This meant that Dirksen had to deliver at least 25 votes from his 33-member caucus that was divided among 21 conservatives, five moderates, and seven liberals. As both sides counted heads, Mansfield announced that cloture would be attempted in early June. “You have to hit bedrock sometime,” he warned. You have to “have a showdown.”

Soon after Mansfield made that announcement, however, Senator Hickenlooper, chair of the Republican Policy Committee, presented new challenges. Hickenlooper resented Dirksen’s closed-door process of negotiation and insisted that other Republicans be given the chance to offer amendments. To make matters worse, Dirksen fell ill with a serious chest cold and a flare-up of stomach ulcers. With Dirksen recuperating at home during the early days of June, Hickenlooper had free rein to sway Republicans votes. Dirksen returned to work on June 5 to find his carefully built Republican coalition crumbling. That morning, he informed Hubert Humphrey that the prospects for cloture were not good. Mansfield postponed the cloture vote to June 10.

Hickenlooper suggested a package of three amendments to be considered before the cloture vote. Hubert Humphrey offered a compromise. In exchange for a vote on the amendments, Humphrey gained three Republican votes for cloture—Karl Mundt of South Dakota, Roman Hruska of Nebraska, and Norris Cotton of New Hampshire. On June 8, Mansfield filed the cloture motion, signed by 27 Democrats and 11 Republicans. With the vote scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 10, the proponents had just 48 hours to lock up the votes. The final showdown began.

The clocked ticked away on the cloture motion as the Senate addressed Hickenlooper’s package of amendments. With voting complete (one amendment passed, two failed), another obstacle to cloture was gone. All that remained was the filibuster. At 7:38 p.m. on June 9, Senator Robert C. Byrd took the floor. He had in his hand an 800-page speech laying out all the reasons why the Senate should not invoke cloture. For 14 hours and 13 minutes, Byrd dissected the bill, laying out his arguments against passage. Reporters called it the “last gasp” of the filibuster.

The debate of the civil rights bill had occupied the Senate continuously for 60 working days, including 7 Saturdays. As Byrd yielded the floor just before 10:00 a.m. on June 10, the chamber filled beyond capacity. Senators sat at their desks. Former senators, House members, and other guests squeezed into the limited standing space at the back of the chamber. Visitors packed the galleries. Outside the Capitol, queued among the news cameras and microphones, hundreds more gathered, hoping for a glimpse of the dramatic proceedings inside the Senate Chamber. It was a scene reminiscent of the Senate during the first half of the 19th century.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act would provide protection of voting rights, ban discrimination in public facilities, and establish equal employment opportunity as the law of the land. An earlier version of this bill had first been proposed by Charles Sumner in 1870. Now, nearly a century later, it was on the verge of passing one of its most difficult hurdles along the road to enactment. The bill managers, Humphrey and Kuchel, along with their leaders, believed they had secured the 67 votes required to invoke cloture and force a vote on the historic bill. Only the roll call could confirm that hope.

“Mr. President,” Mike Mansfield began, “the Senate now stands at the crossroads of history, and the time for decision is at hand.” Then, as a restless crowd settled into every available space, Senator Russell voiced his final opposition. “Within the hour,” Russell declared, “the Senate will decide whether it will abandon its proud position as a forum of free debate by imposing cloture or gag rule upon its Members.” Russell recapped the major points of opposition. “I appeal to Senators to rise above the pressures to which they have been subjected,” he pleaded, “and to reject this legislation that will result in vast changes, not only in our social order, but in our very form of government.”

Hubert Humphrey countered. “In the Senate, the Constitution of the United States is on trial,” he declared. “The question is whether this Nation will be divided, or as we are taught in our … pledge of allegiance, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It was an emotional appeal, from a crusader for equality. “I say to my colleagues of the Senate that perhaps in your lives you will be able to tell your children’s children that you were here for America to make the year 1964 our freedom year.”

Finally, Everett Dirksen took the floor. Briefly summarizing the compromise package, including the final amendments, he spoke in support of the bill with his customary eloquence. “America grows. America changes,” he stated. “And on the civil rights issue we must rise with the occasion. That calls for cloture and for the enactment of a civil rights bill.” Noting that the day marked the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s second presidential nomination, Dirksen proclaimed in words that echoed Victor Hugo, “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.... It will not be stayed or denied. It is here!”

In the presiding officer’s chair, Senator Lee Metcalf stated the order at hand: “Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close? The secretary will call the roll.” Mr. Aiken—aye. Mr. Allott—aye. Mr. Anderson—aye. Mr. Bennett—no. And so it began, the roll-call vote on perhaps the most consequential cloture motion in Senate history. As the names came, members and visitors alike listened with bated breath. Mr. Church—aye. Mr. Clark—aye. Mr. Eastland—no. When the secretary reached “Mr. Engle,” there was no response. California senator Clair Engle was present in the chamber, but a brain tumor had robbed the 52-year-old Democrat of his ability to speak. Instead, the dying Engle slowly lifted an unsteady hand and three times pointed to his eye, signifying his affirmative vote. Few who witnessed this poignant gesture ever forgot it. Mr. Randolph—aye. Mr. Ribicoff—aye. Mr. Russell—no. With each response, the secretary marked off the tally sheet. All around the chamber, senators and spectators alike kept their own tally, silently checking names and adding the numbers waiting for that magic 67. Mr. Thurmond—no. Mr. Walters—no. Mr. Williams—aye!

“That’s it,” exclaimed Mike Mansfield in a break from his usual taciturn demeanor. It was Delaware’s John Williams, the 96th name to be called, who provided the decisive 67th vote. In celebration, Humphrey raised his arms to the heavens and winked at visitors in the gallery. Dirksen smiled. As the roll call ended, there was just one more quiet moment of drama. Waiting in the cloakroom was Arizona senator Carl Hayden, who had not answered when his name was called. He supported the civil rights bill, but throughout his long Senate career he had opposed all efforts to invoke cloture. He fully embraced the Senate’s tradition of unlimited debate. On this day, however, Hayden had agreed to vote yes—if, and only if, his vote was the deciding factor. “It’s all right, Carl,” Mansfield said quietly as Hayden entered the chamber. “We’re in.” Hayden proceeded to vote no.

With six wavering senators providing a four-vote margin of victory, the final tally stood at 71 to 29—27 Republicans and 44 Democrats joined forces to support cloture. They were opposed by nay votes from six Republicans and 21 Democrats. The Senate’s civil rights proponents had achieved a remarkable victory. Outside, on the east front plaza of the Capitol, CBS newsman Roger Mudd also ticked off each vote on a large chart. An elaborate relay system allowed Mudd to get news from the press gallery within seconds of each vote cast. He announced the results to a waiting nation. Cloture had been invoked.

In the wake of the historic vote, there was a flurry of activity. With cloture invoked, 100 hours of debate remained before a final vote, one hour for each senator. Damage could still be done. Immediately, southerners began a post-cloture fight. New opposition amendments appeared, designed to block or weaken the bill, but the proponents stood guard, pushing back all efforts to substantially change the bill. In a counter charge, supporters of the bill offered their own amendments, attempting to make the bill even stronger. More than a hundred new amendments were proposed after cloture. Eleven passed, making only minor revisions to the bill.

Finally, on June 19, 1964, the Senate convened to vote on the civil rights bill. By comparison to the cloture vote, final passage of the bill was anticlimactic, but it marked a new era in American history. “The sham and shame of unequal justice are about to be shaved away,” Kuchel proclaimed, “for they have no place in our American system.” It had been a long debate, one of the longest in Senate history, Mansfield explained, but it was “learned and thorough, and it played an essential role in refining the provisions of the bill.” Once again, Dirksen had the last word. “Equality of opportunity must prevail if we are to complete the covenant that we have made with the people, and if we are to honor the pledges we made when we held up our hands to take an oath to defend the laws and to carry out the Constitution of the United States.” After a final pause, Dirksen added: “I am prepared for the vote.”

At 7:40 p.m. on June 19, 1964, the clerk announced that H.R. 7152 had passed by a vote of 73 to 27. On July 2, the House approved the Senate bill, avoiding conference, and that evening President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law. As Dirksen had stated, its time had come.

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