The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Martin Luther King Jr. said about the filibuster: ‘A minority of misguided senators’

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the impact of Senate filibuster rules during a news conference in 1963. (Video: C-SPAN)

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that if Republicans continue to block a voting rights bill, the chamber would vote on changes to filibuster rules. Then he set a deadline for the vote: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Every January, as the holiday approaches, politicians of every stripe start posting quotes from the famed civil rights leader to social media. A lot of the time, it’s the quote about King’s children being judged by the content of their character, taken from the “I Have a Dream” speech.

The quote-a-thon has gotten to the point where King’s daughter Bernice King has told people to “enact policies that reflect your birthday sentiments,” and at least a dozen times, she has urged them to learn another quote and/or stop taking that one out of context. So has King’s son Martin Luther King III.

And his children regularly respond when officials and lobbyists wrongly invoke his name while pushing their agendas in support of, say, a border wall, or concealed-carry gun permits, or their boss who might get impeached.

But the context in which King shared his views on the filibuster is the same one in which the Senate now finds itself: amid battles over voting rights legislation.

In July 1963, King was in Washington when he gave a few interviews about a potential civil rights act. President John F. Kennedy had pitched it a month earlier in a speech to the American people, saying he wanted to end racial segregation in public accommodations and to strengthen voting rights.

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy responded to threats of violence and obstruction following desegregation attempts at the University of Alabama. (Video: The Washington Post)

One interview was with “Press Conference U.S.A.,” a government-funded television show distributed internationally. By law, each broadcast could not air domestically until 12 years after it was recorded, according to C-SPAN. King was questioned for 30 minutes by a panel.

Toward the end, William Workman of the State, a Columbia, S.C., newspaper, brought up Kennedy’s civil rights bill. Would King, he asked, be amenable to bringing Kennedy’s proposals to a national referendum?

“Well, this would certainly be all right with me, because I think the vast majority of people in the United States would vote favorably for such a bill,” he said.

King then moved from the journalist’s hypothetical to the real world, continuing: “I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting. They won’t let the majority senators vote. And certainly they wouldn’t want the majority of people to vote, because they know they do not represent the majority of the American people. In fact, they represent, in their own states, a very small minority.”

It was that way “all throughout the South,” he said.

So: not a filibuster fan.

He fought for Black voting rights after the Civil War. He was almost killed for it.

For decades, a coalition of Southern Democrats and some Republicans had successfully used the “talking filibuster,” cloture rules and other delay tactics to block civil rights legislation, including bills that would have ended poll taxes and literacy tests at the ballot box. In 1946, five senators spoke long enough to kill a bill that would have cracked down on workplace discrimination. The longest speech in Senate history — 24 hours and 18 minutes by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1957 — was a failed attempt to stop another civil rights bill.

So, in 1963, everyone assumed that the greatest challenge Kennedy would face with his “omnibus” bill would be the dreaded filibuster.

Kennedy, of course, did not live to see his bill put to the vote, but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, did, pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson, a former Senate majority leader who had once tweaked filibuster rules, still endured record-breaking filibusters on his way to victory.

The Supreme Court struck down key sections of that Voting Rights Act in 2013. Senate Democrats are trying to restore some of the protections it provided. Martin Luther King III announced in December that he would spend his father’s birthday campaigning in Arizona for voting rights and an end to the Senate filibuster.

Some call voting restrictions upheld by Supreme Court ‘Jim Crow 2.0.’ Here’s the ugly history behind that phrase.

In the late 1980s, Senate rules changed, making it easier for lawmakers to filibuster; an extended floor speech was no longer necessary. One of the last of the old “talking filibusters” went down in 1983, when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) led an unsuccessful 16-day effort to block King’s birthday from being made a federal holiday.

Here’s what you need to know about the procedure’s complicated history meant to delay, delay, delay. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Read more Retropolis:

The ‘Mississippi Plan’ to keep Blacks from voting in 1890: ‘We came here to exclude the Negro’

A Black WWII veteran voted in Georgia in 1946. He was lynched for it.

A White mob unleashed the worst Election Day violence in U.S. history in Florida a century ago

Loading...