At his first White House news conference Thursday, President Biden said he agreed with former president Barack Obama that the filibuster is “a relic of the Jim Crow era.” This follows a Tuesday statement by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the filibuster “has no racial history at all. None. There’s no dispute among historians about that.”
Actually, there is, and McConnell’s office later walked back that dubious statement, saying the minority leader was referring only to the origins of the filibuster.
In any case, both the longest single-speaker filibuster and the longest multiple-speaker filibuster in U.S. history were launched to stop the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, respectively, according to the Senate Historical Office.
The 1964 attempt by a handful of Southern senators lasted 60 days before Senate leadership could gather a large enough bipartisan coalition to stop it.
And though not remembered as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was a big deal. It was the first federal civil rights legislation in nearly 90 years, and it established a civil rights division at the Justice Department, among other measures meant to support Black Americans’ right to vote.
By the time Strom Thurmond entered the Senate in 1956, he was already known nationally as a staunch segregationist. While governor of South Carolina in 1948, he ran for president as a third-party Dixiecrat. During that campaign he famously said, “There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
Speaking of swimming pools, Thurmond was something of a health nut, or “physical culture enthusiast,” as The Washington Post put it at the time, so when he decided he would filibuster the civil rights bill, he prepared by drying himself out in a long steam bath beforehand, so he wouldn’t have to use to restroom – a detail he bragged about for decades, long after he claimed to no longer believe in segregation.
On Aug. 28, at 8:45 p.m., he took the floor. First, he said, the bill was unnecessary because every state in the union already had laws protecting voting rights. To prove this, he then read aloud every single states’ voting rights laws – all 48 of them, starting with Alabama. (Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states.) Then he read the federal code, a few Supreme Court opinions and from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” Claims he read the phone book are not supported by the Congressional Record.
Occasionally, other Southern senators would ask him a long-winded question – a way to keep it so Thurmond still “had the floor” but could leave it briefly to grab a few bites of a hamburger and rest his voice.
Then he continued, reading the editorial pages of South Carolina newspapers, transcripts of slavery-supporter John C. Calhoun’s speeches, transcripts from his own speeches, the Declaration of Independence, and the better part of a James J. Kilpatrick’s book “The Sovereign States.” His wife sat in the gallery the entire time to support him.
He used no overtly racist language while on the floor but falsely claimed that African Americans in the South who wanted to vote could do so unhindered, and he employed the old Confederate feint that he was simply acting to support states’ rights.
It is worth noting that while Thurmond claimed to be against races mixing, he had already secretly fathered a child with a 16-year-old Black maid his family employed. At the time of his marathon filibuster, his Black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, was in her early 30s. She told The Washington Post in 2003 that she rarely discussed politics with her father during their regular visits, but that she did try to explain to him how hurtful some of his segregationist comments were.
After more than 24 hours, “a stubble of gray beard had sprouted on his chin,” The Post reported. “There are a million objections to H.R. 6127,” the civil rights bill being considered, Thurmond said; The Post joked “he had gone long a way toward listing all million.”
Shortly after 9 p.m., Thurmond could go on no further. “I expect to vote against the bill,” he concluded, to “a great roar of laughter” and applause.
Within hours, the bill passed. Thurmond’s talkathon hadn’t swayed a single senator to change their vote.
In the days afterward, Thurmond was criticized by northern Democrats, five of whom vowed to reform Senate rules so that a simple majority vote would end another stunt like it.
Sixty-four years later, the Senate is still working on that.
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