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How Democrats managed to beat the filibuster — 58 years ago

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a pen to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the historic Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House on July 2, 1964. AFP/Getty Images
7 min

At 7:38 p.m. on June 9, 1964, Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia began speaking on the Senate floor against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He didn’t finish until 9:51 the next morning.

But his windiness failed to block the bill. The Senate, for the first time in its history, voted to end debate on a civil rights bill — after a record two-and-a-half-month filibuster. The next year, it did the same thing to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Now Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, with President Biden’s support, is vowing to try to stop a Republican filibuster against pending voting rights bills if Republicans don’t agree to allow votes on the bills by Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17. Schumer would have to find a way around the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to stop a filibuster — with zero Republican support and not all Democrats on board in the 50-50 Senate.

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

The 1964 vote set the precedent for breaking filibusters. Back then, a two-thirds vote of the Senate, or 67 votes, was needed to invoke “cloture” and end the filibuster that had lasted 75 days (60 working days), still the longest ever.

Amid civil rights protests and lunch-counter sit-ins, President Lyndon B. Johnson sought to pass the civil rights bill first urged by President John F. Kennedy before he was assassinated. The bill outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in hiring. Southern Democrats led by Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia fought to delay the bill in hopes of killing it. Some other Democrats and conservative Republicans also opposed the measure.

It took Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) 11 days just to get the bill on the Senate calendar in early March. After one senator called for taking up an international coffee trade agreement instead, an exasperated Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP’s legislative director, complained in a telegram that Black citizens shouldn’t have “to step aside for international coffee problems when they are being arrested, beaten and bitten by dogs simply because they seek to purchase this beverage at public lunch counters.”

Southern senators delivered long speeches. “The tragic truth is that the bill is as full of tricks as a mangy hound dog is full of fleas,” said Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.). Opponents stalled by proposing more than 500 amendments to the bill. They regularly suggested “the lack of a quorum,” requiring a roll call of senators and in some cases even forcing adjournments when a quorum wasn’t present.

Unlike Schumer, however, the Democratic leaders had Republican support. The debate took a major turn on April 10 when Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) announced he was ready to move on the bill. “I think the time has come to get this show on the road,” he said. Dirksen began working with the Democratic floor leader, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, as well as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department to draft final legislation.

Humphrey and Dirksen also agreed to take a risky step: to seek cloture to end the Southern filibuster. If they failed, the bill might be dead. On May 1, the Associated Press reported 56 senators favored cloture, 11 short of the number needed.

Biden calls for changing the filibuster in major voting rights speech

Both parties doubled down. Republicans who opposed the bill recruited church groups to lobby Midwestern Republican senators. The NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and labor unions pressed wavering Democratic senators to support the measure.

The Dixiecrats’ final gasp was the speech by Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. As he droned into the night, the Senate floor was deserted except for “a few page boys to carry water” and a handful of tourists in the gallery “who watched with bewildered fascination,” Newsday reported. Byrd, speaking from his desk, “read a mélange of philosophy, poetry and medieval law.”

It was a Senate era of personal courtesy rather than partisan rancor. At about 1:15 a.m., Humphrey “walked onto the floor and exchanged good-natured quips with Byrd,” Newsday reported. The Minnesotan briefly took the floor to ask Byrd when he might finish. Byrd resumed “by dedicating a poem to Humphrey which began, ‘The rose is red upon my neighbor’s vine.’”

Byrd finished nine minutes before the start of the next day’s Senate session at 10 a.m., after speaking 14 hours and 13 minutes. Humphrey returned to the chamber with red roses from his own garden and presented them to Byrd, who put one rose in his lapel.

During the night, Johnson had phoned Humphrey to ask about the votes for cloture. “I think we have enough,” Humphrey said, according to Robert Dallek’s biography of Johnson, “Flawed Giant.” Johnson replied, “I don’t want to know what you think … How many do you have?” Humphrey got on the phone to lobby three Southwestern senators whose votes weren’t certain.

The next day, the Senate was jammed with spectators for the cloture vote. Dirksen got the final word. Quoting Victor Hugo, he declared, “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come …”

Then, just after 11 a.m., it was time to vote.

“Almost from the hour it began — 75 days ago — most knew it would come to this,” the Associated Press’s Wilbur Martin wrote. “Seldom has the historic old Senate been so crowded; seldom had the 100 who are the Senators been so tense.”

Then came the words “The clerk will call the roll …”

Byrd voted no, then “he slumped wearily in his seat.” (In later years, Byrd wrote that he regretted his vote and his past ties to the Klan.)

Sen. J. Howard Edmonson (D-Okla.), “one of the handful of uncommitted who had been wooed by both sides, voted yes!”

Then there was a hush as the count came to Sen. Clair Engle (D-Calif.), who had a terminal brain tumor and was in a wheelchair. He couldn’t speak. “Engle, arm in a sling, waved and nodded to affirm his aye,” Martin reported. (Engle died seven weeks later.)

When Republican Sen. John Williams of Delaware cast the 67th aye, “the crowd let out its breath in a long sigh, and sound again filled the chamber.” Russell shouted that “the spirit of the lynch mob” had taken over the Senate. The final vote was 71 to 29 for cloture, with 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans in favor.

Today, Schumer has to get only 60 votes to invoke cloture, and he’s hoping to change the Senate rules with a simple majority to avoid a filibuster altogether. But he doesn’t have any chance of attracting the kind of bipartisan support that Democratic leaders did in 1964. His only hope, if he wants to make good on his MLK Day deadline, rests on persuading holdouts in his own party to change the rules — and once again setting a precedent that chips away at the filibuster’s power.

Shortly after the cloture vote on the 1964 civil rights bill, Congress passed the final bill. Among those voting against it was the expected Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. After Johnson signed the bill into law at a White House ceremony on July 2, he handed out 75 signing pens to people around him. One of the first pens went to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia began his filibuster on June 10, 1964. In fact, he began it on June 9. This article has been corrected.

Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.