David Reel: Senator Everett Dirksen, a largely forgotten civil rights champion

On June 19 every year, Americans observe Juneteenth. It is a civil rights milestone in remembrance of an order issued in Texas in 1865 to enforce Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

Nearly a century later another civil rights milestone occurred in the United States Senate.

In the early morning hours of June 11, 1964, Senators approved a cloture motion that effectively ended further debate on legislation to extend civil, political, and legal rights to black Americans. It was one of the most meaningful pieces of civil rights legislation since the twelve-year Reconstruction Era immediately following the end of the American civil war. 

Today a largely forgotten unsung hero on that issue was conservative Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. At the time, Dirksen was the minority floor leader.

In February 1964, the U.S. House approved a civil rights bill originally proposed by former President Kennedy. The bill immediately encountered fierce opposition primarily, but not exclusively, from Democratic U.S. Senators from southern states. Unable to kill the bill in the House, their strategy was simple – ensure there would not be sixty-seven Senators to vote for cloture to close off debate on the House bill and ensure there would not be a majority of Senators to vote aye on passage of the House bill if that bill ever did make it to the Senate floor. 

Early on in the debate, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey (the floor leader on the bill) reached the same conclusion: that Republican Senator Dirksen would be a pivotal player in providing enough Republican votes to end the debate and pass the bill. 

Mansfield said candidly and prophetically, “The key is Dirksen.”

Before his assassination, Democratic President Kennedy concurred with that assessment. Democratic President Johnson did as well after succeeding Kennedy. 

Initially, Dirksen could only guarantee that twelve to fourteen of his thirty-three Republicans would join with forty-one Democratic Senators. Even with those combined votes, proponents of the bill were still short of the votes necessary to shut down the opposition efforts led by southern Democratic Senators. 

Dirksen soon rose to the occasion. He was the right man in the right place, at the right time.

Dirksen was a pragmatic politician and took the “big view” of his position as Senate minority leader. He knew taking hard line partisan stances would not be good for America. 

Dirksen also knew that the bill as written when it passed the House was dead on arrival in the Senate.

Undaunted by long odds and despite serious health issues, Dirksen rewrote the bill with the help of several legal experts. Together they came up with almost seventy amendments all designed to fashion a bill that could get enough votes in the Senate to end a filibuster, get enough votes to be approved in the Senate, get enough votes in the House to concur with the Senate version of the original House bill, and be signed into law by the President.

Dirksen’s revised bill was not a perfect bill. None ever are. It did honor the timeless approach for progress in the legislative arena — acknowledging that success ultimately results from focusing on the art of the possible.

On June 10, 1964, Dirksen’s strategy was put to test. Immediately after the original House bill was brought forward for Senate debate and consideration, West Virginia’s Democratic Senator Robert Byrd launched a speech in opposition. That speech lasted over fourteen hours. Following Byrd was Georgia’s Democratic Senator Richard Russell, a decades-long leader of southern states opposition to federal civil rights legislation.

Eventually Dirksen spoke on his revised bill. He put country first and political party second.

Dirksen said, “The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.” For emphasis, he included Victor Hugo’s quote: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” 

Dirksen’s amendment strategy, his unwavering commitment to doing the right thing, and his eloquence worked.

Twenty-three Republican Senators voted to close debate. They also voted for his bill resulting in a final approval vote of seventy-one ayes and only twenty-nine nays. Given that level of Senate support the House quickly agreed to Dirksen’s version of their original bill. 

On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the bill that banned discrimination in public facilities, provided voting rights protection, and established equal opportunity as the law of the land. 

TIME Magazine (coincidentally published on June 19, 1964), included Dirksen’s picture and the following observation also on their front cover: “The Civil Rights Bill Product of Principle and Compromise.”

With all due respect to Juneteenth, I suggest June is also an appropriate time to ensure Everett Dirksen is not forgotten as a champion in advancing civil rights in America.

David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters. Born and raised in Harrisburg, he was formerly active in the government and political arenas in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. He now lives and works from Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. 

One thought on “David Reel: Senator Everett Dirksen, a largely forgotten civil rights champion”

  1. BRAVO !! You published an outstanding article in tribute to a largely forgotten but historically significant US Senator who earned far more respect and appreciation than he has received.

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