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Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Senate and Civil Rights: Debate and Filibuster
Image: Press Interview with Ruger Mudd and Thruston Morton

When the House of Representatives’ civil rights bill, H.R. 7152, became the Senate’s pending business on March 26, 1964, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia pledged that he and his colleagues in the southern bloc would fight the bill to the bitter end. “Despite overwhelming odds,” he proclaimed, “those of us who are opposed to the bill are neither frightened nor dismayed.” The bill’s opponents, Russell declared, would wage a “good fight for constitutional government.”

Anticipating a lengthy filibuster in the Senate, the bill’s proponents honed their strategy. President Johnson urged Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to break the filibuster by holding the Senate in round-the-clock sessions to exhaust the bill’s opponents. Johnson, as Senate majority leader, had successfully employed this tactic in 1960 to pass a civil rights bill.

Mansfield respected the president’s counsel, but he refused to follow his advice. He believed that, in addition to exhausting the Senate’s older members, 24-hour sessions would make a spectacle of the institution. The Senate, he explained to journalists, is not “a circus or a sideshow.” The image of members shuffling to the Senate floor in “bedroom slippers, without neckties, with hair uncombed and pajama tops sticking out” to respond to quorum calls or take roll-call votes was unbecoming to the Senate. Mansfield was determined to uphold the “dignity and decorum” of the institution, “as long as I happen to be leader.”

Mansfield based his strategy in part on his understanding of the Senate’s constitutional role as a deliberative body. Though he supported H.R. 7152, he recognized that many of his colleagues remained uncommitted or opposed to the legislation. As one staff member involved in revising the bill recalled, “A bill of this magnitude, which would have such national impact, should require a sizable amount of time before the Senate.” A spirited debate that included a lengthy filibuster may convince the undecided, and allow the bill’s opponents to “accept the legitimacy of the final outcome.”

On Monday, March 30, Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey opened the debate by announcing that he, California senator Thomas Kuchel, and a bipartisan team of “captains” would manage and debate the bill’s various sections in detail. Humphrey encouraged “full and extensive debate,” because “every responsible Senator realizes the historic nature of the bill. Every Senator knows its controversial nature. Every Senator knows that we bear great responsibilities to debate the legislation honestly, objectively, and fully.”

“It is difficult,” Humphrey explained to the packed Senate galleries, “to fully comprehend the monstrous humiliations and inconveniences that racial discrimination imposes on our Negro fellow citizens.” He presented as examples two travel guidebooks written for family vacation planners. One identified hotels that allowed pets to stay overnight. The second book listed hotels that allowed black guests. “In Columbus, Georgia,” Humphrey explained, “there are six places for dogs and none for Negroes.” In Charleston, South Carolina, “there are 10 places where a dog can stay, and none for a Negro.” H.R. 7152, Humphrey insisted, would address these cases of “humiliation and insult.” Senator Kuchel followed Humphrey’s speech with his own powerful endorsement of the bill, calling for national, bipartisan support for H.R. 7152 because discrimination “is not limited to one section of our land.” The problems of racial inequality, Kuchel declared, could not be ignored “no matter from which State a Senator might come.”

Would the American public hear their message? CBS news correspondent Roger Mudd reported daily from the steps of the Senate wing of the Capitol. (Not until 1986 were the Senate Chamber’s proceedings televised.) Mudd’s reports and interviews with the bill’s opponents and supporters were broadcast daily via radio and television.

With the American public watching, the debate unfolded as proponents presented arguments designed to gain support for H.R. 7152, within the Senate and across the nation. Mansfield, Humphrey, Kuchel, and their allies hoped the lengthy debate would produce the votes needed to pass the bill, which might first require invoking cloture to end debate, while Russell, Sam Ervin, and other civil rights opponents used the tactic of the filibuster, a ploy to delay action, to weaken or block passage of the bill. Each side hoped national attention to the debate would turn public opinion in its favor. Senate staff closely monitored constituent mail to gauge public reaction.

National attention had its drawbacks, however, and on April 4 the bill’s managers experienced an embarrassing stumbling block. They failed to muster a majority for a quorum call. In a meeting a few days later, Majority Leader Mansfield reproached his colleagues—many of whom supported the legislation—for their absence. “I know there are a number of Senators running for re-election,” Mansfield explained. “However, there comes a point in time when certain procedures must, in the best interest of the Senate, be laid down.” Mansfield’s strategy worked; the civil rights forces’ response to quorum calls improved.

In addition to media coverage, the bipartisan group backing the civil rights bill received broad support from civil rights organizations and church groups. In mid-April, for example, seminary students launched a round-the-clock vigil at the Lincoln Memorial, pledging to pray in shifts at the feet of the Great Emancipator until the Senate approved the civil rights bill.

As the Senate debate continued, the pro-civil rights forces continued to explain the bill’s eleven sections, or titles, while opponents expressed their objections in far-ranging statements that summed up decades of anti-civil rights rhetoric. Senator Ervin, a former North Carolina Supreme Court judge who was considered to be the Senate’s leading constitutional expert, urged the attorney general to enforce existing statutes rather than create new laws. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina echoed that sentiment, stating that “there are already ample laws on the statute books…if any qualified citizen does not vote today, the explanation must be either that he does not desire to vote or that he has not complained about voting.” Senator Russell Long of Louisiana argued that the bill would deny individuals the right to make “decisions such as whom a person will have as his neighbor and with whom he will associate in other respects.” Senator George Smathers of Florida denied that African Americans encountered difficulty in voting. “In the last two elections [in my state] a higher percentage of Negro citizens voted than white people.” Thurmond argued that the bill took away the rights of white southerners and bestowed them upon southern blacks: “The entire philosophy of those who support this legislation is impregnated with the basic idea that white southerners are not just second-class citizens, but apparently, should have no rights whatsoever.” Senator Richard Russell cautioned that H.R. 7152 would break down the South’s “two different social orders”—one white, one black—leading to the “amalgamation and mongrelization of our people.”

For weeks, the filibuster continued as the bill’s proponents and opponents expressed their views, often in spirited “colloquies,” or pro and con exchanges, designed to sway public opinion. President Johnson complained, justifiably, that the filibuster and lengthy debate had ground the legislative process to a halt. Again, he called for all-night sessions to exhaust the bill’s opponents. Humphrey encouraged patience and appealed to the one man who could deliver the votes they needed, first to invoke cloture, and then for final passage of the bill: Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate minority leader.

What would Senator Dirksen do?

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