NOTE: The following article was published originally in the Peoria Journal Star on June 10, 2004.
Forty years ago marks a civil rights milestone. On June 10, 1964, the Senate voted to end a five-months-long debate on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Between February and June, Senate opponents of the bill had proposed over 500 amendments designed to weaken the measure. Yet after 534 hours, 1 minute, and 51 seconds, the longest filibuster in the history of the United States was broken. Pekin's Everett McKinley Dirksen, then Senate Minority Leader, provided the votes that made cloture, the procedure for ending debate, possible. It was his greatest moment as a legislator.
The nation teetered on the edge of a racial divide in the mid-1960s. Frustrated by decades of second-class treatment, African-Americans were losing patience with their country's legal and political institutions and turning to direct action to secure their rights. Only 12,000 of the 3,000,000 African-American students in the South attended integrated schools. African-American life expectancy was seven years fewer than white, infant mortality twice as great.
Nineteen sixty three and 1964 were the years of civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama, the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech, John F. Kennedy's assassination, and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious," James Baldwin asserted in 1961, "is to be in a rage all the time."
At long last, the White House and Congress awakened to the need to strength civil rights law. Beginning in June 1963, first Presidents John F. Kenney and then Lyndon Johnson cajoled and threatened Congress into action. The House of Representatives passed a bill, known as H.R. 7152, in early 1964 and sent it to the Senate on February 17 where the real battle would take place. Senate rules had allowed southerners in the past to mount filibusters, effectively killing nearly all civil rights legislation. Passage depended on getting the Senate to vote for cloture, a procedure to end debate and bring a bill to a vote. Cloture required the votes of two-thirds of the Senate. Democrats numbered 67, exactly two-thirds of the one hundred-member Senate. But 21 of the 67 came from southern states. This so-called "southern bloc" would oppose the measure vigorously and lead the filibuster. The White House and the Senate Democrats needed support from at least 22 of the Senate's 33 Republicans.
From the beginning, the pro-civil rights forces knew that Dirksen was the key to achieving cloture. When the Senate received the House-passed bill, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) issued the challenge. "We hope in vain," he said, "if we hope that this issue can be put over safely to another tomorrow, to be dealt with by another generation of senators. The time is now. The crossroads is here in the Senate." He then turned to face Dirksen. "I appeal to the distinguished minority leader whose patriotism has always taken precedence over his partisanship, to join with me, and I know he will, in finding the Senate's best contribution at this time to the resolution of this grave national issue."
The senator from Illinois replied: "I trust that the time will never come in my political career when the waters of partisanship will flow so swift and so deep as to obscure my estimate of the national interest. . . . I trust I can disenthrall myself from all bias, from all prejudice, from all irrelevancies, from all immaterial matters, and see clearly and cleanly what the issue is and then render an independent judgment."
Dirksen played the central role in steering the civil rights bill along its twisting parliamentary path through the Senate. The wily, hard-working Republican leader used his personal charm, legendary knowledge of Senate rules, and finely honed political instincts to convince enough Republicans to vote for cloture and the bill's passage to overcome southern Democrats' opposition. He was asked to deliver Republican votes in support of a Democratic president who could not bring along enough of his own party to seal the deal.
Seal the deal he did. And the capstone to that effort occurred forty years ago on June 10, 1964. Time Magazine reported the historic details. Dirksen arose at 5:00 a.m. on that Wednesday, and, after a light breakfast, went out to his garden to clip some long-stemmed roses to take to the office. Leaving his farm in Virginia shortly after 8:00 in his chauffeur-driven limousine, Dirksen arrived at the Senate just as Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) was completing his marathon address of 14 hours and 13 minutes, the longest speech in the entire debate. It ended at 9:51 a.m, just nine minutes before the Senate was scheduled to convene for the pivotal vote on cloture.
Dirksen had the last word. In poor health, drained from working fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen-hour days, his words came quietly. Twice he gulped pills handed him by a Senate page. In his massive left hand, he held a 12-page speech he had typed the night before on Senate stationery . "I have had but one purpose," Dirksen intoned, "and that was the enactment of a good, workable, equitable, practical bill having due regard for the progress made in the civil rights field at the state and local level."
He warned his colleagues that "we dare not temporize with the issue which is before us. It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. It's time has come." He quoted Victor Hugo, the historian and French philosopher who, on the night he died, entered these words in his diary: "stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come." Dirksen declared, "The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied. It is here!" His last words were these: "I appeal to all Senators. We are confronted with a moral issue. Today let us not be found wanting in whatever it takes by way of moral and spiritual substance to face up to the issue and to vote cloture."
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 at 11:00 a.m. At 11:15 a.m., Republican Senator John Williams of Delaware replied "aye" to the question. It was the 67th vote; cloture had passed by a vote of 71 to 29. The final count showed 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans voting for cloture with 23 Democrats - 20 from the South -- and only 6 Republicans opposed.
The formal Senate vote on the bill took place on June 19th. It passed overwhelmingly, 73-27. Majority Leader Mansfield said of Dirksen, "This is his finest hour. The Senate, the whole country is in debt to the Senator from Illinois."
Editorial opinion saluted Dirksen. For example, the Chicago Defender, the largest black-owned daily in the world, which had pilloried Dirksen for weeks, changed its tune and praised him "for the grand manner of his generalship behind the passage of the best civil rights measures that have ever been enacted into law since Reconstruction." Bill O'Connell, the Peoria Journal Star's political writer, suggested that Dirksen might join the Republican ticket in the Fall as the vice presidential candidate partly because of his performance on the civil rights bill.
Among the many private letters Dirksen received, one stands out. Two days after the historic cloture vote, Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote a two-page letter to the Republican leader. "Let me be the first to admit that I was in error in estimating your preliminary announcements and moves," Wilkins noted. He and other civil rights leaders had feared that Dirksen would gut the bill through amendment during the Senate debate. Wilkins allowed that "there were certain realities which had to be taken into account in advancing this legislation to a vote. Out of your long experience you devised an approach which seemed to you to offer a chance for success." He called the final vote tally, with the majority including 27 of the 33 Senate Republicans, a "resounding vote" which "tended mightily to reinforce your judgment and to vindicate your procedure."
After commenting on particular sections of Dirksen's June 10th speech, Wilkins concluded with these words: "With the passage of the bill . . . the cause of human rights and the commitment of a great, democratic government to protect the guarantees embodied in its constitution will have taken a giant step forward. Your leadership of the Republican party in the Senate at this turning point will become a significant part of the history of this century."
Dirksen appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on June 19th. When asked by a reporter why he had taken the lead, Dirksen replied, "I come of immigrant German stock. My mother stood on Ellis Island as a child of 17, with a tag around her neck directing that she be sent to Pekin, Illinois. Our family had opportunities in Illinois, and the essence of what we're trying to do in the civil rights bill is to see that others have opportunities in this country."