Exhibit in my political reliquary is the tally...


June 09, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN

THE PRIZE exhibit in my political reliquary is the tally sheet of the yeas and nays I took in the Senate press gallery 30 years ago tomorrow, when the Senate cast its most significant, influential vote in modern times.

I wrote here last month when everybody was celebrating the 40th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the desegregation decision, that Congress in 1964 did something far more important than the Supreme Court did in 1954, insofar as civil rights is concerned. Today I explain how and why.

The 1954 court ruling applied only to education, yet all aspects of Southern life were segregated in 1954. Hotels, libraries, parks, restrooms, trains, buses, water fountains as well as schools. And Southerners vowed to keep them that way.

Because the order to desegregate came from an un-elected court, Southern politicians were able to arouse the populace against implementation in a very effective way, which even included terror. Year after year passed with no change.

Congress tried but failed to overcome Southern stonewalling. Truly effective civil rights legislation was supported by a majority of House and Senate, but Senate rules allowed senators to hold the floor indefinitely and deny a vote on legislation unless two-thirds of the Senate voted to impose cloture; that is, shut off debate. That had been tried 11 times on civil rights bills. Always failed. In the face of this, pro-civil rights senators always conceded and passed a bill diluted to meaninglessness or just gave up altogether and moved on to other business.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson made a commitment to get a sweeping omnibus bill no matter how long it took. He said he didn't care if the Senate passed only one bill all year. He and his lieutenants in the Senate, principally Sen. Hubert Humphrey, stayed with the program, and on June 10, after nearly four months of debate, the Senate voted 71-29 for cloture.

The bill, which was enacted into law shortly thereafter, was so sweeping that within a very few years every aspect of Southern life was integrated, at least legally and at least somewhat.

Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia gave most of the credit to LBJ. He believed a President John Kennedy or anyone else would have compromised in the end. Or given up.

Why was the outcome so much more far-reaching in the post-1964 days than it had been in the post-1954 days? Because it was obeyed. Why was it obeyed? Because it was perceived by enough Southerners as a national, democratic decision. Legitimate, in a way an unpopular Supreme Court edict really can't be.

The Southerners in the Senate had had all the time they needed to make their case. They were not run over roughshod. They were not demeaned or ridiculed. They were treated more deferentially than they deserved. If it had been otherwise, Senator Russell told Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP lobbyist, the law would have been "unenforceable."

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