Civil Rights Filibuster Ended
June 10, 1964
At 9:51 on the morning of June 10, 1964, Senator
Robert C. Byrd completed an address that he had begun fourteen hours
and thirteen minutes earlier. The subject was the pending Civil
Rights Act of 1964, a measure that occupied the Senate for
fifty-seven working days, including six Saturdays. A day earlier,
Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey, the bill's manager, concluded he
had the sixty-seven votes required at that time to end the debate.
The Civil Rights Act provided protection of voting
rights; banned discrimination in public facilities—including private
businesses offering public services—such as lunch counters, hotels,
and theaters; and established equal employment opportunity as the
law of the land.
As Senator Byrd took his seat, House members, former
senators, and others—150 of them—vied for limited standing space at
the back of the chamber. With all gallery seats taken, hundreds
waited outside in hopelessly extended lines.
Georgia Democrat Richard Russell offered the final
arguments in opposition. Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, who had
enlisted the Republican votes that made cloture a realistic option,
spoke for the proponents with his customary eloquence. Noting that
the day marked the one-hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's
nomination to a second term, the Illinois Republican proclaimed, in
the words of Victor Hugo, "Stronger than all the armies is an idea
whose time has come." He continued, "The time has come for equality
of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in
employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here!"
Never in history had the Senate been able to muster
enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill. And
only once in the thirty-seven years since 1927 had it agreed to
cloture for any measure.
The clerk proceeded to call the roll. When he reached
"Mr. Engle," there was no response. A brain tumor had robbed
California's mortally ill Clair Engle of his ability to speak.
Slowly lifting a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby
signaling his affirmative vote. Few of those who witnessed this
heroic gesture ever forgot it. When Delaware's John Williams
provided the decisive sixty-seventh vote, Majority Leader Mike
Mansfield exclaimed, "That's it!"; Richard Russell slumped; and
Hubert Humphrey beamed. With six wavering senators providing a
four-vote victory margin, the final tally stood at 71 to 29. Nine
days later the Senate approved the act itself—producing one of the
twentieth century's towering legislative achievements.
Filibuster and Cloture
the filibuster to delay or block legislation has a long history. The
term filibuster -- from a Dutch word meaning "pirate" -- became
popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the
Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.
In the early years of Congress, representatives as
well as senators could filibuster. As the House of Representatives
grew in numbers, however, revisions to the House rules limited
debate. In the smaller Senate, unlimited debate continued on the
grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as
necessary on any issue.
In 1841, when the
Democratic minority hoped to block a bank bill promoted by Kentucky
he threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close
debate. Missouri Senator
Thomas Hart Benton
rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate's right to unlimited
Three quarters of a
century later, in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the
urging President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a
debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as "cloture."
The new Senate rule was first put to the test in 1919, when the
Senate invoked cloture to end a filibuster against the Treaty of
Versailles. Even with the new cloture rule, filibusters remained an
effective means to block legislation, since a two-thirds vote is
difficult to obtain. Over the next five decades, the Senate
occasionally tried to invoke cloture, but usually failed to gain the
necessary two-thirds vote. Filibusters were particularly useful to
Southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation,
until cloture was invoked after a fifty-seven day filibuster against
the Civil Right Act of 1964. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number
of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or
sixty of the current one hundred senators.
Many Americans are
familiar with the filibuster conducted by Jimmy Stewart, playing
Senator Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra's film
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,
but there have been some famous filibusters in the real-life Senate
as well. During the 1930s, Senator
Huey P. Long
effectively used the filibuster against bills that he thought
favored the rich over the poor. The Louisiana senator frustrated his
colleagues while entertaining spectators with his recitations of
Shakespeare and his reading of recipes for "pot-likkers." Long once
held the Senate floor for fifteen hours. The record for the longest
individual speech goes to South Carolina's
J. Strom Thurmond
who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil
Rights Act of 1957.
Back to top
Holds Senate Record for Filibustering
August 28, 1957
WASHINGTON — Fortified
with a good rest, a steam bath and a sirloin steak, Sen. Strom
talked against a 1957 civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes
— longer than anyone has ever talked about anything in Congress.
The South Carolina (search) senator,
then a Democrat, opened his one-man filibuster on Aug. 28, 1957, at
8:54 p.m. against the bill, which he said was unconstitutional and
"cruel and unusual punishment."
Republican leader Sen.
William Knowland (search) of
California retorted that Thurmond's endless speech was cruel and
unusual punishment to his colleagues.
But Thurmond kept on.
Other Southern Democrats detested the bill but held their tongues,
clearly outnumbered. Some grumbled that he was grandstanding for
folks back home and broke an agreement not to filibuster.
That didn't deter Thurmond, who by then had a reputation for going
his own way. "It never has been a sure thing that Strom Thurmond
would go along with any group unless it went his way," The
Associated Press reported in coverage of the filibuster.
The senator had not consulted anyone on his staff about his plans,
though Nadine Cohodas wrote in her biography of Thurmond that aide
Harry Dent "knew something was up when his boss began collecting
reading material to take to the floor."
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Changed to three-fifths of the total membership of the Senate.
From Filibuster to Cloture.
The filibuster forces knew that they faced a long and tiring battle.
Their opponents had anticipated and planned for the filibuster. In
fact, Humphrey personally opened full-fledged debate on the civil
rights bill on March 30 with a three hour, eleven-minute speech from
a 68 page speech of his own in defense of H. R. 7152. Both Humphrey
(R-CA), Senate Minority Whip gathered enough senators together so
that at any time a quorum call came up, the pro-civil rights forces
could answer it. Northerners also combated the "southern bloc" by
answering southerners' criticisms of the bill on the floor rather
than simply letting the filibusterers speak indefinitely without
response. To respond to the organized opposition, southerners formed
a platoon system composed of three six- member filibuster teams.
When one team had the floor for the filibuster, the other two would
rest and then prepare to take turns speaking on the floor.
The Republican Party was not
so badly split as the Democrats by the civil rights issue. Only one
Republican senator participated in the filibuster against the bill.
In fact, since 1933, Republicans had a more positive record on civil
rights than the Democrats. In the twenty-six major civil rights
votes since 1933, a majority of Democrats opposed civil rights
legislation in over 80 % of the votes. By contrast, the Republican
majority favored civil rights in over 96 % of the votes.
Cloture helped prevent some filibusters,
but not all of them. As Robert Caro explains in Master of the
Senate, there was a loophole in Rule XXII, which allowed cloture to
be invoked only on bills on the floor but not on a motion to bring a
bill to the floor. This loophole played an important role during the
debate over civil rights legislation in 1949 when Senators from the
South, led by Senator Richard Brevard Russell Jr. (D-GA), used the
loophole to filibuster against the bill. They were able to do this
because of the timeliness of legislation such as rent control, where
the governing law was about to expire. Rent control seriously
affected a large percentage of Northern voters and forced the hand
of some Northern Senators to vote with the South. After defeating
the Civil Rights bill Russell proposed a compromise that allowed for
cloture on motions to bring a bill to the floor, but two-thirds of
all Senators, not just those present, had to vote (this was changed
to three fifths in the 70s).
This did not stop Senators from the South
from filibustering civil rights bills, which resulted in legislative
bottlenecks. Once South Carolina's Strom Thurmond filibustered for
twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes against the Civil Rights Act
of 1957. Majority Leader Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Montana),
spearheaded the adoption of a new Senatorial procedure. Mansfield
created a system that would technically maintain the Senate's
tradition of unlimited debate but would prevent a legislative
logjam. This system is known as the "two-track" system. In this
system, if one issue or "track" is being filibustered, the Senate
can switch to another track in order to deal with other pending
Even this did not stop Southern Senators
from filibustering the civil rights legislation in 1964. However,
the majority realized they had a super-majority to invoke cloture
and were determined to pass the legislation. These Senators,
therefore, did not use the "two-track" system. The Southern Senators
held out for fifty-seven working days, including six Saturdays,
before cloture was invoked and the bill was passed nine days later
For nearly 200 years, the filibuster has made the minority party a
force to be reckoned with in Congress. It inspired the 1939 film
classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (in which Jimmy Stewart played
a naive senator who led a filibuster to thwart efforts to smear
him). The filibuster also has led to some of the darker moments in
the Senate's history: From the mid-19th century through the 1960s,
the filibuster was Southerners' tool of choice for blocking civil
Today, the prospect of Democratic filibusters to prevent the
Republican-controlled Senate from confirming some of Bush's most
conservative judicial nominees has infuriated Republicans, whose
55-vote Senate majority is five short of the number they need to end
a filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is
mulling a rules change that would ban its use against presidential
nominees. In the tradition-bound Senate, this is considered such a
radical proposal that it has been referred to as "the nuclear
option" by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and others.
The fight looms as one of the most momentous showdowns of the
congressional session. It could set the stage for the confirmation
of the next Supreme Court justice, making it easier for the
president to appoint a hard-line conservative. Or it could tear the
Senate apart and send its legislative agenda the way of the National
Hockey League's canceled season. That could end the president's
hopes of making a restructured Social Security system part of his
legacy. 'Tyranny by the minority'
Back to top
Why Getting Rid of the
Filibuster Is Still a Good Idea
Democrats are making a
major mistake by opposing filibuster reform.
By opposing the proposal of Sen. Bill Frist, the Republican Senate
majority leader, to prohibit filibusters against judicial nominees,
Democrats will miss a massive opportunity to reform one of the most
outdated and anti-majoritarian practices in American politics. And,
as liberal Democrats who attacked the Electoral College after the
2000 election reminded us, majoritarian democracy can be a good
If Democrats are searching for a reason to support filibuster
reform, they can look at their own history. In the 1960s and
early-1970s, liberal Democrats and Republicans attacked the
filibuster as anti-democratic, inefficient, and a symbol of
legislative incompetence. Liberals in the earlier post-World War II
period were even bolder in their aspiration. Their goal was to
transform the Senate into a strictly majoritarian institution where
a simple majority of senators could end a filibuster and pass a
piece of legislation.
Late in the 1950s, liberal giants in both parties, such as Hubert H.
Humphrey, Jacob K. Javits, Paul H. Douglas, Joseph S. Clark and
Walter F. Mondale made filibuster reform a top priority. It became
so important that civil rights organizations in the 1950s placed
committee and filibuster reform at the top of their political
agenda. The NAACP listed filibuster reform as important as ending
This struggle culminated in 1975 when Republican Vice President
Nelson Rockefeller intervened in Senate deliberations and allowed
the reform to pass. Although reformers did not obtain a strictly
majoritarian system, senators made it easier to end a filibuster by
requiring that three-fifths, rather than two-thirds, of the Senate
was needed to obtain cloture (the process by which a filibuster is
Opponents, such as the conservative southerner James Allen, warned
that the change would bring havoc to the institution. Reformers
praised the change. A few liberal voices were disappointed that the
filibuster survived at all.
Today's Democrats can learn from this older generation of liberals
in the 1950s and 1960s who argued that the filibuster was
fundamentally anti-democratic, especially since the Constitution,
undemocratically, already granted small and large states equal
representation in the Senate.
In his first year as a senator, Humphrey enraged southern
conservatives by championing civil rights and legislative reform. He
went so far as to call the "undemocratic" filibuster "evil." In the
1950s, the filibuster was the ultimate symbol of how procedure
blocked action on civil rights. Writing for the
New Republic, Sen. Douglas
explained that filibuster reform may seem to be "a barren and arid
matter of parliamentary procedure. It involves, however, the whole
question as to whether Congress will ever be able to pass
The filibuster, according to its critics in the 1950s and 1960s, was
a major reason that the executive branch gained power over the
legislative branch. They argued that the inefficiency of the
filibuster facilitated the "imperial" power of the presidency.
Given that a supermajority -- that is, 60 votes -- is needed to pass
legislation, Senate deliberations are an agonizing process.
Minnesota's Walter Mondale lamented to colleagues that filibusters
"impaired" the ability of the institution to function.
Liberals of the postwar period also liked to remind colleagues that
the filibuster symbolized what many Americans disliked about their
legislative branch. A moderate Republican, Robert Packwood of
Oregon, pointed out that the filibuster was the favorite media
example of how Congress did not work. He was right. In 1964, CBS
correspondent Roger Mudd reported outside the Senate every night
with a clock superimposed next to his face to symbolize how long it
was taking the Senate to reach a decision.
Filibuster reform has a rich liberal tradition. Although liberal
Democrats might lose some key judicial battles as a result of
filibuster reform, the change proposed by Republicans would make
the Senate more responsible to the majority of Americans. In the
long run, it would bring the Senate more in line with 21st-century
understandings of democracy.
Zelizer is a professor of history at Boston University and the
author of On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its
Consequences, 1945-2000 (2004). He is a writer for the
History News Service.
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