July 9, 1964
Soon after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sent the Senate a particularly significant nomination. Sensitive to southern concerns about the scope and implementation of that landmark statute, Johnson considered carefully whom he would name to the newly established Community Relations Service, designed to mediate local racial disputes. He selected a white southerner, former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins.
The Senate referred the Collins nomination to its Commerce Committee, whose most senior southern member was South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. Collins had angered Thurmond with a speech in the senator’s home state in which he charged that southern leaders’ “harsh and intemperate” language unnecessarily provoked racial unrest. Thurmond, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act when it was before the Senate, pointed out that Collins had openly supported segregation in the 1950s. Collins responded, “We all adjust to new circumstances.”
Commerce Committee Chairman Warren Magnuson knew he had the votes to favorably report the Collins nomination to the full Senate. For two days, however, he had tried unsuccessfully to obtain a quorum so that the committee could act. Knowing of the chairman’s difficulty, Thurmond stationed himself outside the committee room on July 9, 1964, hoping to block action by turning away late-arriving senators.
At that moment, Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough appeared. Yarborough had been the only southern senator to vote for the Civil Rights Act. The Texan laughingly said, “Come on in, Strom, and help us get a quorum.” In a similarly light-hearted manner, Thurmond responded, “If I can keep you out, you won’t go in, and if you can drag me in, I’ll stay there.” Both men were 61 years old, but Thurmond was 30 pounds lighter and in better physical condition.
After a few moments of light scuffling, each senator removed his suit jacket. Thurmond then wrestled the increasingly out-of-breath Yarborough to the floor. “Tell me to release you, Ralph, and I will,” said Thurmond. Yarborough refused. Another senator approached and suggested that both men stop before one of them suffered a heart attack. Finally, Chairman Magnuson appeared and growled, “Come on, you fellows, let’s break this up.”
Recognizing a great exit line, Yarborough grunted, “I have to yield to the order of my chairman.” The combatants did their best to compose themselves and entered the committee room.
Although Thurmond had won the match, he lost that day’s vote: 16 to 1.
Cohodas, Nadine. Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1993.