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Howard E. Shuman: Legislative and Administrative Assistant to Senator Paul Douglas

“Punch that button three times. Let's pretend I'm a senator."

Howard Shuman describes a defeated Senator Paul Douglas in 1956, after an unsuccessful attempt to discharge the civil rights bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SHUMAN: We had a very difficult experience in 1956. The House passed a Civil Rights bill which was very similar to the '57 bill as it started out, and which had in it key provisions which ended up finally in the 1964 bill, especially what was called Part 3, which enforced the Fourteenth Amendment. That bill came over from the House, and it was a pretty good bill. The later voting rights bills were much better because in those early days the bills treated voting rights on an individual basis, so that if an individual was not allowed to vote, he could go to court. He could get an injunction from the court, which told the polling official to let him vote. It had two weaknesses. What could have happened, and did happen under that provision, which ultimately passed in '57, was that by the time an injunction was issued and the court procedures occurred, the election was over. So there was very little justice. Second, it put the burden on individual blacks in the South, who were poor and penniless, to take these legal steps at each incident. That was a very, very poor answer to the almost complete lack of voting rights in the South. The voting rights provisions in that bill provided very little justice. The bill did include the Civil Rights Commission, and it did include Part 3, but Part 3 was deleted in the Senate in 1957.

In any case, that bill passed the House in 1956. Senator Douglas went over to the House floor to accompany it to the Senate, so that it wouldn't be sent to the Judiciary Committee. He got there just after the bill passed the House, and then he came back to the Senate. When he got back to the Senate, the bill had arrived almost as fast as the speed of light and had been referred, after a first and second reading, by unanimous consent, to the Judiciary Committee, which was the graveyard for Civil Rights. Jim Eastland's committee got the bill. It was the committee which had bottled up a Civil Rights bill there for almost two years, which didn't meet often, where there was a filibuster in committee when it did meet, where members didn't appear for a quorum, and where the committee adjourned at twelve noon when the Senate came in. Nothing happened! Mr. Douglas was tricked in this instance. Lister Hill, his good friend from Alabama, was in the chair, and told him afterwards, smiling like a Cheshire cat, that he'd just followed the rules of the Senate.

Then Mr. Douglas attempted to discharge the committee of the bill. Well, to discharge the committee, there were a series of steps. A petition for discharge had to be filed in the Senate at the morning hour. It had to lay over a day. Then it could be motioned up. A filibuster could apply to the motion to proceed to its consideration. Then if it was motioned up, another filibuster could apply to voting on whether to discharge the committee. If that was successful all that happened was that the bill went to the calendar. Then the bill had to be motioned up, a filibuster had to be broken and the Senate had to break another filibuster before there could be a vote on the bill. It was an impossible situation. But to do any one of these steps it had to be done on a new legislative day, and a new legislative day came only after an adjournment. If the Senate recessed, there was no morning hour, no new legislative day, and none of these steps could take place. So what Johnson did was to recess the Senate, day after day, so that the 26th of July was the legislative day of the 13th of July.

Finally, out of desperation, Mr. Douglas moved to adjourn the Senate, instead of to recess it. Johnson made a great to-do about this, on the grounds that this was a prerogative of the leader, and it generally was. Johnson, after recessing for two weeks, denounced Mr. Douglas for trying to take over the leadership. It was the stock argument of blaming the other guy for your own faults. And a vote came. The vote was, I think, seventy-six to six against the senator. He was crushed. The six votes came from a curious bunch of people: [George] Bender of Ohio, the Republican who was of questionable reputation; Bill Langer of North Dakota, who had I think been indicted by his political enemies but never sent to jail after he was governor, who was a Robin Hood, who took from the rich and gave to the poor, he didn't make any money himself; there was Herbert Lehman, who was a saintly fellow; there was Hennings, a Democratic senator who was an alcoholic, and who should have been leading the fight but who never came to the floor at the crucial moments; Irving Ives of New York; and Mr. Douglas. Those six. The only six votes. Hubert Humphrey did not vote with us. Hubert was in Lyndon's pocket, on that vote.

Mr. Douglas went out to the bank of elevators, which then were operated by patronage students from Georgetown. Senators punched the button three times in order to call the operator and to tell the operator that a senator rather than the general public was present. Mr. Douglas said to me, after this crushing defeat, "Punch that button three times. Let's pretend I'm a senator." There was a lot of pathos in it. He went back to his office, and in his memoirs he said -- I can't quote this precisely -- but he said that he cried for the first time in many years over his feeling of inadequacy for not being capable of pulling it off.