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Inside the ‘Single Most Important Vote’ of John Dingell’s Record-Breaking Career

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The career of the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, John David Dingell Jr., who died Thursday in his home state of Michigan at 92, was one of many votes. But out of all the votes that the Detroit-area Congressman cast during his nearly 60 years in the House of Representatives, one stood out.

His “the single most important vote” of all, he said as part of an oral-history recorded in 2012, was his yea vote for the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Dingell had arrived at Congress at the height of segregation, having been elected to replace his Michigan-Congressman father, who had died in 1955, just two weeks after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus.

Nearly a decade into Dingell’s Congressional career, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act came before Congress. After Dingell helped get the 1964 bill passed, he faced a difficult primary. Redistricting meant that he was up against another incumbent Congressman, John Lesinski, with whom he had much in common, including a Polish family background and fathers who had also served in Congress. The big difference between them — and likely the topic that would drive voters in one way or the other — was on the issue of race, as TIME described it back then:

The Dingells were liberals and champions of the Negroes, who comprised some 46% of the population in their longtime constituency. The Lesinskis stood fast against any Negro penetration of their own home ground of Dearborn, a virtually all-white city of 115,600.

Predictably, Dingell this year voted in Congress for the civil rights bill, while Lesinski was the only Northern Democratic Congressman to vote against it. Dingell’s vote took some courage. In Michigan’s redistricting, he lost most of his old Negro constituency, faced Lesinski in a new district that included 80% of Lesinski’s old territory and was 90% white.

In the new district, bordered by Negro neighborhoods and beset by fears of black incursions, the backlash, so everybody thought, was an “obvious” issue. Dingell accused Lesinski’s followers of “trying to use it. They’re raising the bogeyman, telling people that if I’m elected there will be two Negro families on every block in Dearborn.” Lesinski indeed raised some bogeymen. “The other day,” he cried in a typical speech, “a 35-year-old man was set upon and stabbed by four colored fellows. He was stabbed to death. It didn’t appear on TV or in the papers. They hushed it up. Now that’s the kind of thing that the people are worried about.”

…To believers in the backlash theory, Lesinski’s victory seemed a cinch. But Dingell won by a vote of 30,791 to 25,620. In a district that was clearly liberal on almost every issue other than civil rights, his liberal record was the big difference. Moreover, as Dingell himself said, with more accuracy than modesty: “I can make an understandable and intelligent speech, where my opponent, frankly, cannot.”

Dingell’s victory, the magazine surmised, was a solid piece of evidence that the country had come further on civil rights than some had feared.

To Dingell, however, the fear of possible backlash was less influential than another motivating factor: doing what he felt was right.

“I very nearly lost an election over it. But it was the right thing to do. It was the single vote that did the most to see to it that our country remained one and to finally begin the solution of the problems that triggered the Civil War,” he once told an interviewer, “I was challenged in an election in which the Wall Street Journal gave me a 1 in 15 chance of winning. It was a hard-fought campaign in which I asked people: Why is it that a white man or woman should be able to vote and an African-American should not?”


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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com