The Senate filibuster ought to have a romantic, courageous resonance in a nation that praises individuality and admires the minority that stands up to an overbearing majority.
But filibustering isn't romanticized or admired, because Southern senators opposed to basic civil rights for black Americans gave the exercise a bad name.
From 1917 to 1961, there were nine filibusters directed against civil rights bills. (Plus two directed against changing the filibuster rule.) All succeeded. The defeated legislation in every case was as strongly supported in the rest of the nation as it was opposed in the South. There were anti-lynching bills, anti-poll tax bills, anti-literacy test bills, anti-discrimination employment bills. None even came to a vote, till 1957 and 1960, when filibusterers managed to force such weakening concessions in the legislation that Southerners cared not that the bills were voted on and became law.
Slightly stronger civil rights legislation was twice filibustered to death in 1962. In 1963, against a backdrop of growing unrest and racial conflict in the South, President John F. Kennedy introduced a very strong omnibus bill. Few civil rights advocates really believed he could get it through the Senate.
After President Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson vowed he would go all the way with the bill as a memorial to the murdered president. This was in part to dispel notions that LBJ was more Southern than liberal, in part because he had become a strong advocate of civil rights.
He wanted to keep the Senate in nonstop 24-hour sessions, the way he had done as majority leader during the Eisenhower administration when modest civil rights legislation came before the Senate. The goal then, which did not work, was to wear down the Southerners physically till they had to give up the floor and allow a vote.
The new majority leader, Mike Mansfield, refused to do that. He said he doubted it would work any better then than before. He also said he didn't want to be responsible for one of the aging senators collapsing under the strain.
The Southerners were older than their opponents. Sen. Richard Russell organized and led the 19 Southerners fighting the legislation. He formed three six-member teams. While one team was holding the floor, the other two would tend to other business or rest.
The average age of the three team leaders and Senator Russell was 68 years. (Once when a no-longer young Southerner had held the floor for 5 hours and 40 minutes straight of emotional, blood-pressure-raising oratory, Sen. John Sherman Cooper was dispatched to the chamber by a worried aide to make sure he was all right.)
The leader of the proponents of the bill was Hubert Humphrey. He organized his forces into six teams. The average age of Senator Humphrey and his liberal cadre was only 49.
The right-vs.-wrong, fight-to-the-finish, do-it-for-Kennedy, generational overtones of the Senate clash made the nation more attentive than it ever had been before to the legislative process. CBS assigned Roger Mudd to report on the filibuster five times a day on television and four times a day on radio.
The filibuster began on March 9, 1964. It was, to use a present-day cliche, the mother of all filibusters. Seventy-seven days later, cloture was imposed on a civil rights bill for the first time ever.
For old-fashioned Southern senators, it was hard to say which was worse on that June 10: The prospect of a civil rights bill that would change forever Southern culture; or the prospect that the Senate, which, thanks to its tradition of unlimited debate, they often called "the South's revenge for Appomattox," was going to be changed forever.
Both prospects occurred, of course.
In 1965 cloture was imposed a month after debate began on a tough voting rights act aimed only at the South. The bill easily passed. In 1968 a civil rights housing bill also passed after a relatively quick imposition of cloture.
Thereafter, extensions and refinements of the basic civil rights code became routine, and blacks came to be major participants in Southern life and politics.
The senator whose health so concerned Senator Cooper after that 5-hour, 40-minute speech against the 1964 bill was Sen. Strom Thurmond. He is still in the Senate. In 1991, he and every other Southern senator but one voted for a comprehensive civil
Theo Lippman Jr. writes editorials for the Baltimore Sun.