Landmark Legislation: The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The longest continuous debate in Senate history took place in 1964 over the Civil Rights Act. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who had proposed the legislation, it was strongly advocated by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Addressing a joint session of Congress just after Kennedy’s death, Johnson urged members of Congress to honor Kennedy’s memory by passing a civil rights bill to end racial discrimination and segregation in public accommodations, public education, and federally assisted programs. In his address, Johnson declared, “we have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
On February 10, 1964, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill, HR 7152. When the House-passed bill arrived in the Senate on February 26, 1964, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield placed it directly on the Senate calendar rather than refer it to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by civil rights opponent James Eastland of Mississippi. On March 9, when Mansfield moved to take up the measure, southern senators launched a filibuster against the bill. The Senate debated the bill for sixty days, including seven Saturdays.
At the time, a two-thirds vote, or sixty-seven senators, was required to invoke cloture and cut off debate in the Senate. Since southern Democrats opposed the legislation, votes from a substantial number of senators in the Republican minority would be needed to end the filibuster. Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic whip who managed the bill on the Senate floor, enlisted the aid of Republican Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen, although a longtime supporter of civil rights, had opposed the bill because he objected to certain provisions. Humphrey therefore worked with him to redraft the controversial language and make the bill more acceptable to Republicans. Once the changes were made, Dirksen gained key votes for cloture from his party colleagues with a powerful speech calling racial integration “an idea whose time has come.”
On June 10, a coalition of 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats ended the filibuster when the Senate voted 71 to 29 for cloture, thereby limiting further debate. This marked the first time in its history that the Senate voted to end debate on a civil rights bill. Nine days later, the Senate passed the most sweeping civil rights legislation in the nation’s history. The House followed by accepting the Senate version on July 2. When President Johnson signed the bill into law that same day in a nationally televised broadcast, he was joined by civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been instrumental in leading the public mobilization efforts in favor of civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains one of the most significant legislative achievements in American history.
For Further Reading:
Mann, Robert, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996).
Whalen, Charles and Barbara, The Longest Debate: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Seven Locks Press, 1985).