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Classic Senate Speeches

Everett McKinley Dirksen by Richard Hood Harryman

Everett M. Dirksen
Supporting Cloture on the Civil Rights Bill

June 10, 1964

In combatting a filibuster by southern senators, Minority Leader Everett Dirksen delivered a persuasive speech on the 1964 civil rights bill. He hoped to convince as many as possible of his Republican colleagues that it was time to close debate and allow a vote on the bill, which Congress had been considering for a full year.

A moderate Republican from Illinois, Dirksen was a pragmatist willing to negotiate compromises in order to craft legislation broadly acceptable enough to pass. After serving sixteen years in the House of Representatives, he moved to the Senate in 1951 and became minority leader in 1959. As well as being an adroit legislator, Dirksen was also noted as an orator. He worked hard at this skill, rarely reading from a written text because he believed it was important to adapt his message to the particular audience. Instead, he carefully prepared his speeches, writing out detailed outlines, which he then memorized. He learned to tell lively stories to capture the attention of his listeners. "A good story has a genuine biological effect," Dirksen said. "If you can get a good, sound belly laugh, it starts a blood surge. Your audience might have been tired; its attention was wandering. You come up with a good story, and they are back with you." Dirksen also purposely adopted the image of a rumpled, slightly disheveled man of the people, much to the delight of cartoonists, who had great fun with his wild hair, unpressed suits, and droopy face.

In the spring of 1963, President John F. Kennedy submitted a draft civil rights bill to Congress. While the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed in acting on the measure, the House moved ahead, finally passing the bill in February 1964, less than three months after the assassination of the president. Even though the Senate eventually managed to bypass the conservative Judiciary Committee by placing the bill directly on the calendar for action, intransigent southern senators, primarily Democrats, were determined to filibuster. Under a provision designed to protect the rights of the minority, the Senate, unlike the House, allows a determined group of senators to block legislation by carrying on extended debate. In 1964, the Senate's cloture rule required the votes of sixty-seven senators to close off debate and bring a measure to a vote. The support of a substantial number of Republicans was essential in order to achieve such a "supermajority" on the civil rights bill.

During his time in both the House and the Senate, Dirksen had built a solid record in support of civil rights, having introduced a bill for a civil rights commission in the House in 1953 and worked for the 1960 civil rights bill in the Senate. To Dirksen, civil rights represented an important moral issue, even though he seldom received the political support of Chicago's black voters. In February 1964, however, he expressed serious doubts about certain sections of the House-passed bill. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana and the floor leader for the legislation, Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, realized that Dirksen would be the key player in obtaining the necessary Republican votes. With new President Lyndon B. Johnson pressing for the legislation, they finally persuaded Dirksen to work closely with White House and Justice Department strategists, as well as with the Democratic leaders, to redraft the more controversial provisions to make them as broadly acceptable as possible. His approach was to amend the bill in ways that would make it more palatable to midwestern Republican senators who did not object to civil rights but philosophically opposed federal government intervention in the issue. To meet this concern, for example, Dirksen arranged that primary enforcement would be the responsibility of local and state governments, with the federal government becoming involved only if necessary. The southerners could not be mollified by any such changes, however, and the filibuster dragged on in the Senate until June of 1964.

Finally, on June 10, Dirksen rose to speak on the bill, hoping to persuade a sufficient number of Republicans to vote to close debate. After reminding his listeners how long the bill had been under consideration, he outlined the reasons for voting cloture, quoting Victor Hugo's statement, "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come." To illustrate that point, he listed the many examples of morally based legislation--such as child labor and pure food and drug laws, woman suffrage, and popular election of senators--that were fiercely opposed when first introduced but eventually passed with the support of a national consensus. Civil rights, he insisted, was another such issue. He reminded his Republican colleagues that the party had stood for equality since its founding and he urged them to support its principles.

Later that same day, the Senate voted, 71 to 29, to shut off debate, with 27 Republicans joining 44 Democrats in voting to end the filibuster. This marked the first time in history that the Senate had voted cloture on a civil rights bill. After the Senate passed the measure on June 19, the House accepted the Senate version and President Johnson signed it into law on July 2. Among other provisions, the act as passed contained sections relating to discrimination in education, in voting, and in public accommodations such as restaurants, theaters, hotels and motels; it also strengthened the Civil Rights Commission and established an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.


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