The Last, Hoarse Gasp
(TIME, September 9, 1957) -- Senators decided that a filibuster would be both futile and dangerous: it might result in a harsher bill, it might bring about a change in the Senate's cloture rule, and it would certainly build up ill will that could only harm the Southern cause in future years. Among the first to agree with the no-filibuster decision was South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat candidate for President of the U.S.
Therefore, when Strom Thurmond arose on the Senate floor at 8:54 one night last week, his fellow Southerners had every reason to expect that he, like the rest of them, would make a brief, denunciatory speech and then sit down. They were wrong as they could be.
A Soft Snore. A dull, droning speaker at best, Thurmond began by reading the texts of the election laws of all 48 states -- from Alabama to Wyoming. By 11:30, Republican Everett Dirksen was passing the word: "Boys, it looks like an all-nighter." But at 1 a.m. Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater approached Thurmond's desk, asked in a whisper how much longer Strom would last. Back came the answer: "About another hour." Goldwater asked that Thurmond temporarily yield the floor to him for an insertion in the Congressional Record. Thurmond happily consented -- and used the few minute interim to head for the bathroom (for the only time during his speech). he returned and began talking again. His promised hour passed; Strom spoke on. Gallery attendance dropped to three: Thurmond's wife Jean, N.A.A.C.P. Washington Representative Clarence Mitchell, and an unidentified man who was snoring softly.
At 9 Thursday morning 54-year-old Strom Thurmond was still on his feet. Wires from back home began to pour in on other Southerners, demanding that they help Strom Thurmond in his heroic effort. They realized quickly how Thurmond's doublecross had put them on the spot with their constituents. Urgently, angrily, they ut in phone calls to home-state newspapers, explaining the harsh facts: Thurmond was not helping the cause; he was playing with dynamite.
Grandstand Wind. Strom Thurmond mumbled on, sipping orange juice sportingly brought to him by Illinois' liberal Paul Douglas, munching diced pumpernickel and bits of cooked hamburger. At 1:40 p.m. he allowed: "I've been on my feet the last 17 hours and I still feel pretty good." At 7:21 p.m. Thurmond broke the old Senate record for longwindedness, set by Oregon's Wayne Morse in the 1953 tidelands oil filibuster. (Morse had nothing but congratulations for the new recordholder. "I salute him," said Wayne. "It takes a lot out of a man to talk so long." But Morse still holds the Senate record for Spartan retention of the body's juices: he had no benefit of parliamentary pause.) And at 9:12 p.m., 24 hours and 18 minutes after he started, Thurmond shut up and sat down.
The civil rights bill rolled toward final passage. But before the vote could be taken, Georgia's Herman Talmadge stood up to speak for the doublecrossed Southerners. To herman Talmadge, who yields to no man as a segregationist, Thurmond's effort as a "grandstand of longwinded speeches" which could "in the long run wreak unspeakable havoc upon my people." When Talmadge finished, a dozen Senators -- including some Southerners -- rushed over to shake his hand. The U.S. Senate then got on with its business: it passed the watered-down civil rights bill, a half-loaf foreign aid appropriation, a compromise bill aimed at protecting the FBI files from random inspection. Then the 85th Congress, First Session, adjourned. it was tired of itself and especially of Strom Thurmond.
When the sparring and slugging of the civil rights fight finally ended last week, the political judges at ringside began picking the winners. The consensus, pending confirmation at the polls: the Republicans, as a party, be a decision -- and Vice President Richard Nixon, as an individual, by a knockout.
The original bill was sent to Capitol Hill by a Republican Administration and supported there by a heavy Republican majority. But Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson took it over and nearly succeeded, with softening amendments, in making it a Democratic Party bill. That bill pleased hardly anyone: Southern popular sentiment was clearly against any bill at all, while the North held its nose at the weak Johnson version. In the final result, it was House Republicans and Assistant Attorney General Bill Rogers who managed to put some teeth back into the bill.
Through the fight, long after G.O.P. Senate Leader William Knowland had through in the towel and when even House Republican Leader Joe Martin was considering retreat, Vice President Nixon punched hard for a meaningful bill. The verdict on his efforts was best rendered by his opponents. Just when the Senate was about to pass his watered-down bill, Democrat Johnson arose to attack Nixon for leading "a concerted propaganda campaign" against it. And last week, after the final vote on the civil rights bill had been taken, Georgia's Senator Richard Russell, the most influential Southerner of them all, paid Nixon a bitter sort of tribute. Said Russell: the civil rights bill will be enforced by "political-minded" Attorney General Herbert Brownell who, in turn, will be "constantly pressed by the Vice President of the U.S. to apply the great powers of the law to the Southern states at such places and in such time and manner as the N.A.A.C.P., of which the Vice President is the most distinguished member, may demand.
THE SOUTH With a New Weapon
Before the civil rights bill passed through the last stretch of the Senate foundry last week, the South's most famous Negro leader was drawing up plans for a Southwide campaign to make prompt use of the new weapon. Alabama's the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hero of the history-making Montgomery boycott against Jim Crow buses, announced that his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (membership: 100-odd Negro leaders, mostly clergymen, in eleven states is going to undertake a long-range drive to get Negro names on Dixie registration rolls by:
In its get-out-the-Negro-vote drive, said President King, the S.C.L.C. will seek help from all Negro churches in the South, try to raise $200,000 the first year from churches, labor unions, foundations, civic organizations. First step ahead: a S.C.L.C. meeting in mid-September to set up the drive's central headquarters in Atlanta.
AllPolitics home page|
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics