Civil rights, 1964: How a bill became an act

  • Article by: NORMAN SHERMAN
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 6:50 PM

Many thought a watered-down result was inevitable again. Hubert Humphrey and his allies did not.


On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, made possible by careful manuevering in the Senate by Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (to Johnson’s right). The vote that ended a lengthy filibuster on the bill occurred 50 years ago this week.

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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.

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  • Sen. Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party over the Civil Rights Act. Nonetheless, he greeted Sen. Hubert Humphrey in Moultrie, Ga., during the 1964 presidential campaign.

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