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Arrests Compel Senate Quorum


November 14, 1942

Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee

In November 1942, a full-scale civil rights filibuster threatened to keep the Senate in session until Christmas. For five days, southern senators conducted a leisurely examination of legislation to outlaw the poll taxes that their states used to disenfranchise low-income voters, including many African Americans.

The 1942 filibuster took place just days after mid-term congressional elections had cost Senate Democrats nine seats. Frustrated, Democratic Majority Leader Alben Barkley decided the time had come to end the filibuster. During a Saturday session on November 14, Barkley obtained an order directing Sergeant at Arms Chesley Jurney to round up the five absent southern members needed to provide a quorum.

Jurney sent Deputy Sergeant at Arms Mark Trice to the Mayflower Hotel apartment of Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar, the Senate’s third most senior member. In his book on Tennessee senators, Senator Bill Frist describes McKellar as an “extraordinarily shrewd man of husky dimensions with a long memory and a short fuse.” When Trice called from the lobby, McKellar refused to answer his phone. The deputy then walked up to the apartment and convinced the senator’s maid to let him in.

When Trice explained that McKellar was urgently needed back at the Capitol, the 73-year-old legislator agreed to accompany him. As they approached the Senate wing, McKellar suddenly realized what was up. An aide later recalled, “His face grew redder and redder. By the time the car reached the Senate entrance, McKellar shot out and barreled through the corridors to find the source of his summons.”

Barkley got his quorum, but McKellar got even. He later convinced President Franklin Roosevelt not to even consider Barkley’s desire for a seat on the Supreme Court. Such a nomination, he promised, would never receive Senate approval.

When Senate Democrats convened the following January to elect officers, a party elder routinely nominated Sergeant at Arms Jurney for another term. McKellar countered with the nomination of a recently defeated Mississippi senator. An ally of McKellar strengthened the odds against Jurney’s reelection by suggesting that he had been involved in financial irregularities. As the Democratic caucus opened an investigation, Jurney withdrew his candidacy.

While no documentation of “financial irregularities” survives, Jurney had the misfortune of being caught between a frustrated majority leader and an unforgiving filibuster leader. The poll tax issue continued to spark filibusters until finally put to rest in 1964 by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.