Given the unwillingness of the Democratic leadership of the US Senate to force the Republicans to actually filibuster, perhaps we can look back at a time when a President and his allies in the Senate were willing to go to the mat for something they deemed important. Today is an appropriate day to do, because on this day in 1964 the filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights act was finally ended with a cloture vote. A bill that had first been introduced into the House after John F. Kennedy's June 12, 1963 speech on Civil Rights would finally become law on July 2 of the following year.
There were many delays. Judge Howard Smith of Virginia, chair of the House Rules committee and an ardent segregationist, bottled the bill up. The sponsor Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn, chair of the Judiciary Committee, worked long and hard to round up a sufficient number of Members so that a discharge petition would pass, and rather than suffer that embarrassment, Smith allowed the bill out of committee where it passed the whole House with 290 votes on Feb. 10, 1964.
And then it went to the Senate.
One needs to remember the time. The strongest opposition was from key Democrats, who due to the "solid South" controlled many key committees. It did not matter that President Johnson had been Majority Leader nor that he had been close friends with some of those Southerners, particularly Richard Russell of Georgia. They were adamantly opposed to civil rights legislation.
Johnson's successor as Majority Leader was Mike Mansfield of MT, one of the great senators of the 20th century, later a US Ambassador to Japan who truly loved by his host nation. Mansfield was born in New York City, but grew up in Great Falls Montana, dropping out of school to enlist in the Navy at age 14. He later served in both the Army and the Marine Corps (there was no separate Air Force until after WWII). He worked as a minor and mining engineer, studied on his own, and never having attended high school was admitted by examination, first to Montana School of Mines and then to University of Montana, where he earned BA and MA degrees and taught Latin American and Far Eastern History before he was elected to Congress in 1942.
Mansfield knew that if the bill sent over by the House ever went to Senate Judiciary Committee, arch-segregationist James Eastland would ensure that it never again emerged to see the light of day. He pulled a parliamentary maneuver by avoiding a second reading of the bill and managed to send it directly to the floor for debate, although even this maneuver was briefly subjected to a filibuster.
It is upon the bill's arrival on the floor that the real battle began. The date was March 30, and the opposition was led by the formidable Richard Russell, perhaps the most influential member of the Senate for much of his tenure, a man who had helped Johnson rise to the position of majority leader, and whose close friendship with Johnson survived the Civil Rights Act, only to be severed on their disagreement over the nomination of Abe Fortas as Chief Justice in 1969.
Russell was a racist, one reason his brief attempt to seek the Democratic nomination for president had foundered in 1952. One need only consider this famous statement he made with respect to the Civil Rights Bill that now was pending before the Senate:
We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states.
Let me make a brief excursus. That language about rejecting social equality and intermingling, especially the former, is to me quite parallel with some of the language currently used in opposition to full rights for our GLBT citizenry, whether it is questions of marriage equality, coverage under hate crimes legislation, DADT, or so many other areas in which some of our people still suffer discrimination and inequality. I am old enough to remember the nastiness of the opposition during the period we describe as the Era of Civil Rights - perhaps there are too many who have forgotten how embarrassing to this nation the language - and actions - of the opposition were.
Returning to the bill - now filibustering began in earnest. After more than 50 working days, including several Saturdays, Mansfield, Republican Leader Ev Dirksen and his assistant Tom Kuchel of California, cobbled together a substitute that while somewhat weaker than what had passed the House seemed to be capable of drawing sufficient votes to break the filibuster. The last major speaker for those filibustering was an ex clansman from W Virginia named Robert Byrd, who on the morning of June 10 ended more than 14 hours of filibustering. The manager of the bill was Hubert Humphrey of MN, who the previous day had announced that he had the 67 votes for cloture.
But people were not sure. Some of those votes were considered soft, perhaps Perhaps one of the most important single actions in the history of the Senate occurred. Senator Clair Engle of California was dying of the brain cancer that would finally claim his life in July. He was carried into the Senate for the vote, but was no longer capable of speech. When the clerk called his name, there was silence. He lifted his arm, which he was barely able to do, and pointed at his eye to indicate his affirmative vote - Aye. The cloture motion passed 71-29.
Remember, there were six of that majority considered soft. Had Engle not been able to vote, and all six had refused to support the cloture effort, it would have failed with only 66 votes.
The substitute measure was agreed to in relatively short order, and on this day 45 years ago the final measure cleared the Senate, the House chose to support the Senate version and on July 2 Johnson signed it into law.
Why do I recount this history? We seem to have a reluctance to force the Republicans to filibuster. Even when Franken joins the Senate, as I expect will happen soon enough, the Democrats cannot be sure to have 60 votes on every issue. They will lose some of their members, say Ben Nelson of NE, on some issues, and they cannot guarantee to offset that with the very few remaining moderate Republicans, notably the two women from Maine.
Yet if something is important enough to our society, to our nation, should we not be willing to force those who are being obstructionist to place them in the position of being the ones preventing progress, whether it be on health care, on equal rights for all Americans, on energy and environment? Will we see a president committed enough to something to be willing to place his political capital and prestige behind an issue, to force that issue to be fully vetted?
I understand that some think it is too early in the administration to bring the mechanisms of government to a halt over any one issue. And besides, none of the issues has had the kind of presence in the national attention that Civil Rights did. After all, Kennedy did not propose the bill until 1963, well after things like Little Rock and Freedom Rides and University of Alabama with George Wallace demagaguingand University of Mississippi with James Meredith needed armed Federal marshalls to register. Even so, the bill was going no where, which is why on August 28 over 250,000 of us came to Washington - that March was to pressure Congress to act. Still it did not, and it is only after the assassination of Kennedy that we are able to really see the bill move forward.
Passage of a bill is by itself not enough. The Civil Rights Act became law on July 2, 1964. Sunday March 7 of the following year John Lewis almost died at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma Alabama. That led Lyndon Johnson to make his famous speech on March 15. It is worth reading all of his words , or even listening to the audio here.
Let me offer some of his words, in contrast to what I quoted from Richard Russell.
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight.
It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation; but emancipation is a proclamation, and not a fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is un-kept.
There is more. The words Johnson spoke about ongoing inequality certainly still apply to many whose rights were at issue in 1964 and 1965. And as there was a history of prejudice and fear that had lead to the denial of those rights then, and to some degree still today, for African Americans, we have similar histories of prejudice and fear with respect to others - of national origin, of religion, of gender, and of sexual orientation.
But we also have an even more basic issue, and it is of economic equity. Johnson noted this as well in his speech. Let me offer two more quick snips:
How many white children have gone uneducated? How many white families have lived in stark poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we've wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?
This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all, all black and white, all North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They're our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too -- poverty, disease, and ignorance: we shall overcome.
Johnson gave that speech to advocate for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. One of the differences between the original and substitute versions of the Civil Rights Bill had been the removal of protection of voting rights, and even then it was difficult to get it through the Senate.
Bullies succeed when they are not opposed. They use fear and intimidation. And when we do not stand up to them, they become bolder, more arrogant, and will attempt to obstruct even more those things that might weaken their control. Allowing the obstructionists of the other party to use holds and threats of filibusters to prevent action for which the American people expressed their strong support by their votes in November is to betray the audacity of their hopes. Besides, Johnson needed 67 votes, and Obama only needs 60.
As a nation and a society we have come a long way from when in much of the country political participation was limited to white men of property. We have expanded legal protections and political participation greatly in the 233 years since we declared ourselves free of British rule. The progress has been neither continuous nor has it avoided regression. After a period in the last century in which we saw a real expansion of individual rights and the opportunity for economic advancement for most of our people, we have beginnin by the penultimate decade of that previous century seen a slippage, particularly in economic fairness, but also in the willingness of the majority of the American people to undertake the challenge of expanding political and social equity for all of our citizens.
During the Civil Rights movement we saw people force the government to address long-festering issues. We had a press that focused the nation's attentions on the well-justified grievances, and the nation saw the horror of hatred and violence and discrimination. And some political leaders were willing to act, to force opponents to put their hatred and fear on full display. That includes forcing a filibuster, and thereby forcing some weaker members of the US Senate to pick sides, to let their constituents and the nation answer the question, which side are you on?
The country may be differently organized. The media functions in different ways, but that does not mean we cannot bring the issues to the forefront. We the people can work with those in the government to try to address these issues, including demanding that those actions be taken to force our elected representatives to show whether they stand with what the American people want or not.
Is it time for a filibuster? If so on what issue or issues?
I offer no answer to that question. But in looking back 45 years, sometimes insisting upon a filibuster can force people to act, to start the process of overcoming the obstructionism, to move the nation in the direction it needs to go.
Lyndon Johnson was a man from the South, yet he had come to understand that we had to address the issues of fairness, of equity, that had been festering in their opposites for too long.
He had courage. And he spoke with the words of a hope that in its own day was as audacious as anything we might offer today, words at the heart of that civil rights movement.
WE SHALL OVERCOME