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Who Opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

07 Dec 2009
Posted by Bruce Bartlett
I see that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took a swipe at Republicans this morning, comparing them to those who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for filibustering health reform legislation. It’s worth remembering that the longest filibuster of the 1964 act was conducted by a still-sitting senator, Robert C. Byrd, who personally spoke against the legislation for 14 hours and 13 minutes on June 9 & 10, 1964. Here’s an extract from my book, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, which was published last year.

             The enormous desire to memorialize the senseless murder of John F. Kennedy, plus Johnson’s determination to demonstrate his power and purge his own racist past by getting a substantive civil rights bill through the Senate, proved a formidable combination. The long filibuster of 1964 was only delaying the inevitable. That all the participants knew this only goes to show how deep their racism was. It’s one thing to engage in a filibuster if there is even a glimmer of hope that something might be salvaged as a result. But serious commitment is required to take such action when one knows that ultimate failure is the only conceivable outcome. This fact should be kept in mind when thinking about people like Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, whose individual filibuster of the 1964 civil rights bill is the second longest in history, taking up eighty-six pages of fine print in the Congressional Record. Only a true believer would ever undertake such a futile effort.

            Even so, one final element was essential to passage of the civil rights bill—the strong support of Republicans. Although Democrats had a historically large majority in the House of Representatives with 259 members to 176 Republicans, almost as many Republicans voted for the civil rights bill as Democrats. The final vote was 290 for the bill and 130 against. Of the “yea” votes, 152 were Democrats and 138 were Republicans. Of the “nay” votes, three-fourths were Democrats. In short, the bill could not have passed without Republican support. As Time Magazine observed, “In one of the most lopsidedly Democratic Houses since the days of F.D.R., Republicans were vital to the passage of a bill for which the Democratic administration means to take full political credit this year.”
            A similar story is told in the Senate. On the critical vote to end the filibuster by Southern Democrats, 71 senators voted to invoke cloture. With 67 votes needed, 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans joined together to bring the bill to a final vote. Of those voting “nay,” 80 percent were Democrats, including Robert C. Byrd and former Vice President Al Gore’s father, who was then a senator from Tennessee. Again, it is clear that the civil rights bill would have failed without Republican votes. Close observers of the Senate deliberations recognized that the Republican leader, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, had done yeoman work in responding to the objections of individual Republicans and holding almost all of them together in support of the bill. “More than any other single individual,” the New York Times acknowledged, “he was responsible for getting the civil rights bill through the Senate.”

let's clarify this

The voting on the civil rights bill was closely correlated to one thing: regionality. Southerners mostly voted against, Northern and Westerners mostly voted for.
Since then the GOP has disgraced itself by enthusiastically embracing Nixon's Southern Strategy which purposely took advantage of white resentment in the south. This is why today the south is largely a GOP stronghold--something to be ashamed of, not proud of.


And this is the same Robert Byrd who worked personally with our current president when Obama was a junior senator from Illinois. But I guess you people can't let go of things that happen 50 years ago.

How do you treat your children, anyways? "Oh I'm sorry Billy, but I can't help you out because, you see, when you were 2 you spit up on my shoulder. And I'm never going to forget that. In fact, I take it as a personal insult and I hate you. Go away, Billy."

Unless, of course, your child is a proud, flag-waving Republican -- then everything is fine! I'll never forget the reaction Republicans had to Dick Cheney shooting a man in the face, pretending that it wasn't a big deal. You people are intellectually wrong and morally despicable.

Just a wee bit of "trivia"

Just a wee bit of "trivia" about Byrd's history:

In the early 1940s, a politically ambitious butcher from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the "Grand Dragon" for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to officially organize the chapter.

As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young Byrd's organizational skills that he urged him to go into politics. "The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation," Baskin said.

The young Klan leader went on to become one of the most powerful and enduring figures in modern Senate history.

I recalled Byrd's history as a KKK Grand Wizard when, addressing then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson in a Congressional hearing regarding a security breach at Los Alamos (missing computer hard drives with nuclear secrets), Byrd condemned Richardson and pronounced that he had committed an unforgivable, career-ending transgression of failing to show up at an earlier Congressional hearing on the matter.

''You have shown an extreme contempt'' for Congress, Mr. Byrd said. ''You've had a bright and brilliant career. But you will never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed. It's gone. You've squandered your treasure.''

Seemed pretty hypocritical to me from a guy who certainly benefited from forgiveness for past sins.

On the other hand, he earned a place in my heart for this reaction to Michael Vick's dog-fighting ring (although I have to wonder if he's ever done anything regarding conditions and treatment of animals on factory farms)

correction: Byrd wasn't a

correction: Byrd wasn't a Grand Wizard. He had other titles in his roles as (per that Washington post article) Klan organizer and advocate, including "Kleagle" (recruiter) and "Exalted Cyclops," the top officer in the local Klan unit.

LOL, I love this perennial

LOL, I love this perennial attempt by conservatives to claim credit for Civil Rights by pointing to the existence of liberals in the Republican party of the 1960s and suggesting that the party today is somehow heir to the traditions they've spent the last 40 years purging out.

I usually like to point to what happened to the party ID of conservatives and liberals because of Civil Rights. For instance, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, like thousands of committed racists (or "negrophobes," as some called them back in the day), dealt with Civil Rights by leaving the Democratic Party to become Rebublicans.

I look forward to your next diatribe on how computers are clearly going nowhere, because everyone who knows their history knows they are just girls in a big room doing sums on adding machines.

I grew up in West Virginia,

I grew up in West Virginia, and I have to admit that Senator Byrd's past transgressions made me less than proud to be a member of his constituency on more than one occasion.

Having said that, I think his passionate and thoughtful speeches in opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq partially redeemed him--at least in my eyes.

Bruce - Normally I agree with you, but not here


Love your blog and agree with much of what you say, but your analogy is wrong here. I saw this in an AP story today and it hits it on the nose:

"Ronald Walters , a political science professor emeritus at the University of Maryland , said that Reid's comparison to the days of slavery doesn't apply, because today's political parties are very different than they were during the 19th century slavery debates, as well as the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Democratic Party of the 1800s was considered the party of landowners who owned slaves, while the GOP was viewed as a more radical party, Walters said, because of its opposition to slavery.

"And 21st century Republicans today are like Southern Democrats of the past," Walters said."

Nothing New Here

There really is nothing more annoying than when a journalist takes on history and pretends they have uncovered something new. There is absolutely nothing "hidden" about the Democratic Party's history on race. More than a generation of civil rights literature is so crystal clear on this someone would have to be willfully trying to ignore it to pass it off as new. Literally if I were to bother turning around in my office right now I could pull a hundred books off the shelves that address the role of Southern Democrats. Hell, if an academic were to try to pass off Bartlett's argument as uncovering "Hidden History" they might well face plagiarism charges. After being laughed out of the room, that is. It has been said that to be ignorant of one's ignorance is the malady of the ignorant, and, apparently, that also holds true of too many journalists who tackle history.


There's nothing more annoying than someone who tries to bury damaging information by claiming that it's old news, everyone already knows this, etc. It's a very lame technique. 


As Yet Another Budget Wonk mentioned above, the only thing that is lame here is for someone to claim that the existence of liberal Republicans almost 50 years ago somehow absolves the current Republican party of their record over the past 40 years, the largely successful attempt to purge the party of such liberals, and the party's current attitudes towards civil rights and race.

The "damaging information" you presented is the fact that conservatives are terrible on issues related to race.

Today's Democrats are happy to bring that information to light because conservatives who are racist have left the Democratic party and have been embraced by the Republican party. The kind of Democrats you describe in that excerpt have either left the party or have had a change of heart on civil rights.

Could You Get 71 Votes Now?

It's true that in 1964 Republican support (including the support of some pretty damned conservative senators such as Dirksen) was necessary for passage of the Civil Rights Act, but that has about zero relevance to today, given the propensity of Republicans to vote unanimously in opposition to whatever the Democrats propose. I seriously doubt whether you could get 71 votes (or even 67 votes) for cloture on de novo passage of this bill. Assume all 60 Dems would vote for cloture, but where would you get seven votes from the Reps? Collins and Snowe, for sure, probably Voinovich, and after that I come up with some maybes.

The point is that 50 years changes a lot

The Republican party of 2010 is (mainly) a white, male, Southern party whose main platform is the removal of all taxes whilst simultaneously spending like drunk sailors on anything that profits some corporation somewhere (see "Medicare part D", Farm subsidies, Haliburton, etc.). It also has a substantial theocratic streak (see George II commenting that God told him to go to war in Iraq, imposition of abortion restrictions, etc.).

The Democratic party of 2010 is simply anti-Republican. All we've done is hold up to scrutiny what the Republican party is and said, "Well? Is this what you want?" Hardly a long-term political strategy...but it won big. This makes us a non-white, non-Southern, anti-fundamentalist religion budget-balancing party. Very different from 1960.

The chairman of the RNC is a

The chairman of the RNC is a black man; the newly elected governor of New Jersey, hardly a southern state, is a Republican; the woman who commands more attention from the Democrat-media complex is a private citizen who is the former Republican governor of the northern-most state in the union, Alaska; and Allen West and Wes Phillip are running for the House in Florida and Alabama, respectively, while Michael Williams is running for the U.S. Senate in Texas in 2010. All three are black conservative men running as Republicans. Marc Rubio, a Cuban-American, is running for the Senate as a conservtive Republican in Florida.

You may need to update your talking point about the Republican Party of 2010 being (mainly) the party of angry old southern white men.

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