June Profile: Hubert H. Humphrey

Republican Senate Filibusters.  Inability to act.  Stalemate.  Hostage Taking. Pick whatever words you want to describe the dysfunction in our government these days.  The issues today are no more complex or divisive than at other times in our history.  What’s changed is how we address the issues.  It may serve us all well to take a quick look back at one segment in the life of the great Hubert Humphrey to gain a bit of insight into what compromise, statesmanship, and government effectiveness resembled.  Our June Progressive Profile provides that avenue.

Hubert H. Humphrey, born 100 years ago this past May, was vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson and was an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1968.  However, it was his work in the U.S. Senate that left a lasting mark on the country.  Humphrey’s work to break a Senate filibuster is credited as being the single defining element to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.  No issue today is greater or more controversial than was the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s.  How then, did the “happy warrior” from Minnesota achieve success and end the longest continuous filibuster in Senate history?

Hubert H. Humphrey: The Happy Warrior

Humphrey was described as neither an ideologue nor a theorist. It was said that he loved ideas, and he never lost touch with his academic roots. Political philosophy interested him primarily for its practical uses, its ability to inspire action. His intellectualism and creativity were action oriented. Perhaps never more so than when the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of HR 7152 (the Civil Rights Act) in March 1964 and sent the bill on to the U.S. Senate.

On March 9, when the Senate took up the legislation, southern senators launched a filibuster against the bill, resulting in an on-floor debate that lasted for 57 days, the longest in Senate history.  In 1964, a two thirds (67) vote was required for cloture as compared to the 60 that has bottlenecked the Senate today. Since southern Democrats opposed the legislation, votes from a substantial number of senators in the Republican minority would be needed to end the filibuster. Humphrey, the Democratic whip who managed the bill on the Senate floor, enlisted the aid of Republican Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen, although a longtime supporter of civil rights, had opposed the bill because he objected to certain provisions. Humphrey therefore worked with Dirksen to redraft the controversial language and make the bill more acceptable to Republicans.

Without Humphrey’s skill as a statesman and politician, the legislation may never have been achieved.  Compromise, conversation, intellectual prowess, and compassion.  Those words describe how Humphrey worked tirelessly to move the needed number of Republican votes to end debate and bring the legislation to the floor for a vote.

On June 10, a coalition of 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats ended the filibuster when the Senate voted 71 to 29 for cloture. This marked the first time in its history that the Senate voted to end debate on a civil rights bill. Nine days later, the Senate passed the most sweeping civil rights legislation in the nation’s history. The House followed by accepting the Senate version on July 2. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains one of the most significant legislative achievements in American history.

Reflecting back years later on the bill’s passage, Humphrey said the following:

“I remember when I was on Meet the Press in about the first part of March, late February, when the Civil Rights Bill had come on down. I was made manager of the bill. They said to me, ‘How do you expect to pass that bill? Senator Dirksen has already said he shouldn’t go for this, he wouldn’t go for that, he shouldn’t do this, he wouldn’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think Senator Dirksen is a reasonable man. Those are his current opinions and they are strongly held, but I think that as the debate goes on he’ll see that there is reason for what we’re trying to do.’ And I said, ‘Not only that, Senator Dirksen is not only a great senator, he is a great American, and he is going to see the necessity of this legislation. I predict that before this bill is through Senator Dirksen will be its champion, not its opposition.’ ”

Perhaps the spirits of Humphrey and Dirksen may find their way back to Washington to help inspire those occupying senate seats today.

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