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Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Senate and Civil Rights: Proponents Build a Strategy for Success
Image of Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Kuchel

On February 17, 1964, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield announced the arrival of H.R. 7152, the controversial civil rights bill, from the House of Representatives. Typically, the Senate would refer a House-approved bill to its committee of jurisdiction. Instead, Mansfield announced his intention to bypass committee action and place the bill directly on the Senate calendar. Everyone knew why. The Judiciary Committee under the chairmanship of Senator James Eastland of Mississippi was known as the “graveyard” of civil rights legislation. Though Mansfield preferred to follow the Senate’s regular order, he explained that the reasons for “unusual procedures are too well known to require elaboration.” Mansfield urged the Senate to consider the bill without further delay. “Great public issues are not subject to our personal timetables,” he insisted. “They do not accommodate themselves to our individual preference or convenience. They emerge in their own way and in their own time.” The time for a civil rights bill had come.

Civil rights supporters, including Mansfield, anticipated that Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the leader of the Senate’s southern bloc of conservative Democrats, would oppose the bill. A master of the Senate's rules and precedents, Russell planned to use the institution’s unique procedural tool—the filibuster—to kill H.R. 7152. Historically, even the threat of a filibuster had been effective in killing or weakening civil rights legislation (this threat had been deployed successfully in 1957 and 1960, for example), making it the procedural choice for Senate foes of civil rights. Russell pledged to fight the bill to the end. One journalist predicted that a filibuster of “unprecedented length may be in the works.” Anticipating a lengthy debate, Mansfield worked tirelessly through February and early March to clear the Senate’s legislative calendar. When the Senate approved a tax bill on February 26 and vital farm legislation on March 6, Mansfield announced his intention to make the civil rights bill the Senate’s pending business.

Thus the battle lines were drawn. All senators prepared for a southern-led filibuster of Mansfield’s motion to proceed. Russell had honed the southern caucus’s filibuster tactics over the years, coordinating speeches and colloquies on the Senate floor to last for days, weeks, and perhaps even months. Filibustering a bill required patience and stamina. Senate rules required members to stand while speaking and to refrain from eating. When fatigue set in, experienced members found respite with a quorum call. If a senator noted the absence of a quorum (a simple majority), a Senate clerk would read the roll-call list of members’ names until a simple majority responded—a process that could take hours if senators chose not to appear. These extended quorum calls allowed filibustering senators to take a break, and had the added effect of forcing the bill’s supporters to stand by to answer the call.

As Senate leaders Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen prepared for what promised to be a complicated and contentious debate, they selected party whips Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Kuchel to serve as the floor managers for H.R. 7152. As assistant floor leaders who tracked votes on legislation, Humphrey and Kuchel possessed expert knowledge of complex Senate rules and procedures. As the senators responsible for managing the floor debate on the civil rights bill, they organized regular bipartisan strategy sessions in Humphrey’s leadership office. There senators and staff met, sometimes several times a week, to plot their strategy. Civil rights activist Burke Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and attorneys from the Department of Justice frequently joined the meetings.

At the heart of their strategy was a plan to invoke cloture and force a vote on the civil rights bill. Senate Rule XXII, the cloture rule, required the support of 67 senators—two-thirds of those duly elected—to limit further debate to one hour per senator and bring the bill to a vote. Since the cloture rule had been established in 1917, cloture had been invoked only five times and never on a civil rights bill. Humphrey and Kuchel were determined that this time would be different. Although the Democrats enjoyed a large majority in the Senate, the party’s deep divisions over the issue of civil rights required Humphrey, a Democrat, and Kuchel, a Republican, to seek the support and cooperation of a strong bipartisan coalition. Building that coalition would take time—just how much time no one knew.

As part of the strategy to build support for the bill, Humphrey and Kuchel prepared bipartisan teams to manage each of the expansive bill’s 11 titles, or sections. They drafted daily newsletters, providing detailed information about the bill’s various components. Humphrey and Kuchel assigned to their civil rights allies the responsibility of bringing small groups of senators promptly to the Senate floor for quorum calls. For the first time in modern Senate history, the pro-civil rights forces seemed to be as organized as Senator Russell’s southern bloc of opposition.

On March 9, 1964, Senator Mansfield introduced his motion to make the civil rights bill the Senate’s pending business. Using parliamentary procedure, Senator Russell successfully launched a filibuster on the motion to proceed to consider H.R. 7152. Over the next two weeks, civil rights opponents denounced the bill on the Senate floor.

The first filibuster against H.R. 7152 ended on March 26, 1964, when Russell and the southern bloc chose to allow Mansfield’s motion to proceed, deciding instead to reserve their considerable influence to block the final bill. The Senate, with a bipartisan vote of 67-17, agreed to make the civil rights bill its pending business. With that first hurdle passed, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, a civil rights proponent, introduced a motion to refer the bill to the Judiciary Committee. H.R. 7152, he explained, “is intricately wrapped up in legal precedents and meanings.” He argued that the Senate had a responsibility to establish “a sound record of our intent” by pursuing debate through regular order and issuing a full committee report. Though a few senators supported his motion, Morse did not prevail. He lost this procedural vote, 50-34. As the bill moved forward to a full-floor debate, Senator Russell again armed for battle. “We shall now begin to fight the war,” he promised.


And so began the second filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No one could predict its outcome.

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