Fifty years ago this Tuesday, on June 10, 1964, the U.S. Senate voted to end a filibuster that had gone on for 54 days, blocking an up-or-down vote on a civil-rights bill. The Senate had never overcome a civil-rights filibuster before. It had been 37 years since cloture, the forced ending of debate, had occurred on any issue.
Among the votes for cloture was that of California Sen. Clair Engle. He had been hospitalized with a brain tumor that would soon lead to his death. Engle came to the Senate floor from his hospital bed, unable to walk or speak but determined to vote for something he thought important and overdue.
He was pushed slowly in his wheelchair to the space in front of the clerk calling the roll. When the clerk called “Mr. Engle of California,” the ailing lawmaker weakly raised his hand, pointed to his eye, and the clerk announced, “Mr. Engle votes Aye.”
The floor manager for the bill was Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey. He had been anathema to Southern senators and many of their constituents ever since his 1948 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Still only mayor of Minneapolis, he had called on our country to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” He was booed, and Dixiecrat Democrats led by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond walked out.
Once in the Senate, Humphrey had found acceptance among even some of the more conservative senators, who came to admire his bright and creative mind, however liberal it was.
Though he remained suspect for a few, most could not resist his exuberant love of the legislative process across many issues. He held no grudges, never sought to get even, never spoke harshly about anyone. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that Humphrey had “a spark of greatness.” Others also saw that he really cared about people, from a farmer in northern Minnesota to a queen in her castle.
The filibuster had long been the weapon of choice for the South, and it was even harder to overcome in those days than it is today. In 1957 and 1960, then-Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (who was president by 1964) sanitized (some say “gutted”) civil-rights bills to get the votes for passage.
Many thought such a watered-down result was inevitable again in 1964. Humphrey and his allies did not.
Humphrey had to get 67 votes for cloture. There were 66 Democrats in the Senate, but 19 of them from the South would certainly vote against, and there were at least three more conservative Democrats likely to vote that way, too. That meant that a large majority of the 34 Republicans had to be persuaded to help end the filibuster.
A gentle answer
The opposition was determined and relentless. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, their leader, said, as debate began, that he would fight the bill that would bring “social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races.” What seemed like democracy to most of us was a rallying cry for the old Confederacy.
Letters to Humphrey from around the nation, not just from the South, were more venomous than Russell’s words, filled with anger and hatred. Here are samples: “You are a nigger-loving, kike-loving Communist traitor to the Aryan race.” “I hope and pray there is another Lee Harvey Oswald waiting around some corner for you.” “Get cancer, Mr. S.O.B. Very truly yours.”
Against that backdrop, eventual victory was never quite certain. Humphrey had to create and hold together a fragile coalition while he nurtured support in the country. He had to keep proponents careful in their advocacy. He needed the civil-rights movement to grow even stronger. He needed to reach beyond the usual advocates of change to new allies. He recognized the surging participation of the religious community and its presence everywhere, and particularly in states where wavering senators lived.
Humphrey commissioned a book, “Moral Crisis: The Case for Civil Rights,” and sent it to more than 5,000 clergy members. It was intended not to persuade but to provide content for sermons from the pulpit and persuasion in the pews. Included were four speeches, by John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Humphrey and Republican Sen. Tom Kuchel of California.
It worked, although not with everyone. Evangelist Bob Jones preached, “If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty.” Later, Sen. Russell deplored the role of “priests, rabbis, bishops, ministers, deacons, [and] pastors.”
Humphrey’s effort required cooperation from civil-rights leaders as well. He invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he did not know well, to a conversation in his office. I watched as Humphrey explained, in a 90-minute meeting, what he thought was necessary to get the bill passed.
He urged a dubious King, if he could, to keep the rhetoric of proponents under control, as noninflammatory as possible. He acknowledged that both King and others would want to speak harshly, particularly in view of recent killings of civil-rights workers and leaders, the bombing of little children in a Southern church, and 100 years of post-emancipation injustice.
But what Humphrey proposed was treating opponents of the civil-rights bill, no matter how outrageous, with a quiet reserve. It was a tactic to make “the dream” possible. King left the meeting understanding how Humphrey would behave and why.
Humphrey also made sure that opponents of the bill within the Senate had time to make their case. He thought this was essential to lure some wavering senators to come over.
A fair fight
The days of speechifying went on and on. Rhetoric was offensive, logic absent, prejudice displayed in a self-righteous proclamation of states’ rights. (Russell was not the worst. At one point, while Sen. Strom Thurmond was babbling, Russell, seated just behind Humphrey, leaned forward and asked, “Hubert, how in hell can we shut up that fool?”)
The most vulnerable section of the bill was the one on public accommodations. It outlawed “discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other accommodations engaged in interstate commerce.” It allowed the federal government to enforce compliance.
What became clear early was that this key provision would survive only if some conservative Republicans accepted it. Success in making that happen meant inviting Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the minority leader, to have a role in shaping the language. Dirksen was a histrionic poseur, but smart, and the undisputed Republican chieftain. He was not alone in loving the sound of his own voice, but he was unequaled.
Massaged by the president, by Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and by Humphrey, and publicly praised by all of them, Dirksen became an ally and advocate for the bill. He brought with him an unlikely coterie of senators who ordinarily would have deplored and resisted even a less comprehensive bill.
Once Humphrey and Mansfield were sure of success, the vote for cloture was called. There were 71 for and 29 against. Nine of 12 conservative senators long listed as crucial voted with the majority. Another seven from western and border states, thought hopeless at the beginning, joined the “aye” votes. They were there in large part because of Humphrey’s strategy.
Once the measure itself was brought to the floor after cloture, 560 amendments were ready to be introduced by opponents. Ultimately, only 99 were, and they were voted down, since only 51 votes were now required to do so. If any had passed, the House would have rejected the weakened bill.
On a final vote, 73 senators voted “aye.” Most of the 27 “nay” votes came from the South, as expected, but even there Humphrey’s style in giving everyone a chance to speak, vilifying no one, had made defeat less humiliating.
In his autobiography, Humphrey described Russell’s certainty that “if the opponents of the bill had not put up the fight they had, the bill would never have been enforceable in the South. It was important to have satisfied the people of the South that everything that could have been done had been done in opposition. He [Russell] thought now, having been defeated in a proper legislative battle, the South would accept the verdict.”
A different time
When the voting was over, Humphrey headed for his office going down the marble stairs in front of the Capitol. At the bottom stood about 200 people, a polyglot crew of black and white, young and old. When Humphrey came into sight, they cheered and jumped up and down.
Humphrey, emotionally drained, couldn’t resist his predilection for speechmaking. (A photographer once claimed he had taken a picture of Humphrey with a hummingbird hovering over his shoulder. The wings were in focus. The lips were not. Conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who once told me how much he liked Humphrey, said, “Hubert talks at 250 words a minute, with gusts up to 400.”)
The amended and strengthened bill went back to the House, where it passed on July 2 and immediately was sent to the White House. Johnson signed it, and the lives of millions of Americans changed forever.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, looking back, says, “What Hubert did was historic. It was unlikely in a Senate of deeply held opposing positions, and with parliamentary hurdles ever present.
“But Hubert’s Senate, America’s Senate, was a place of civility in the most difficult of times, of a willingness to compromise when American values, hopes and vision were at stake. I don’t understand why that essential, vital part of democracy is gone. We need to get it back soon.”
Norman Sherman was press secretary to Hubert Humphrey when the latter was vice president and served on his Senate staff.