The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bears a strong Minnesota stamp. Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey was the bill’s floor leader who got it over its highest hurdle, a Senate filibuster, exhibiting lawmaking skill that would become the stuff of political science textbooks.
That fact alone brought the 50th anniversary of its enactment, culminating last Wednesday on the date President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, particular notice in this state. The Humphrey School of Public Affairs did its namesake proud with commemorations including a June 9 appearance by former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton noted that Humphrey “knew the difference between compromising to get something done that will really advance your cause and compromising on the cause itself.” It was that discernment — a product of Humphrey’s schooling in the Minnesota politics of the 1940s and 1950s — that allowed him to recruit and keep his essential ally in defeating the filibuster, GOP Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Humphrey yielded to Dirksen’s preference for state and local rather than federal enforcement of the new law in order to secure Dirksen’s support.
One cannot look back at the Humphrey-Dirksen partnership of June 1964 and not lament the absence of similar Senate bipartisanship in recent times. Or wish that the legislation that killed Jim Crow laws had more thoroughly eradicated Jim Crow attitudes, habits, and economic patterns in America.
But anniversaries are for inspiration, not lamentation. I found some in the eloquent speech Dirksen gave on the Senate floor the day the filibuster broke, June 10, 1964.
“We dare not temporize with the issue which is before us,” he said. “It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come.” It had come because, by the thousands, ordinary Americans had become part of a grassroots movement, calling and marching for change.
Today’s Americans also confront issues that are essentially moral in character — income inequality, immigration, disparities in educational opportunity. The partisan environment may have changed in Washington. But the impetus for change still can and must come from ordinary Americans with a moral compass.