• U.S.

Nation: Ev’s Law

3 minute read

Last week the civil rights filibuster became the longest in Senate history,* and Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey, the bill’s floor manager, was mad. “The whole procedure is disgusting,” he cried. “All that is being accomplished here is a display of adult delinquency. Any intransigent minority can run the Senate if a majority stands around with jelly for a spine.”

Humphrey put the blame not on bill-stalling Southerners, whose “obstructionist tactics were to be expected,” but on Senators who profess to support civil rights but are opposed to shutting off the Southerners by cloture. Humphrey demanded that “the Senate start to act like a Senate, and that Senators start to earn their wages, and that Senators abide by the Constitution, which says that a majority shall constitute a quorum to do business.”

Even mild Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, was running out of patience. “We are witnessing a travesty on the legislative process,” he snapped. “The majority is being told what it can and cannot do.” The anger stemmed from what the bill’s supporters considered a broken pledge by the Southern leader, Georgia Democrat Richard Russell. They claimed he had promised to permit votes on more amendments this week. But after a Southern caucus, Russell declared there would be none. In retaliation, Senate leaders announced that the Senate’s working hours would be stretched to midnight. “That doesn’t scare us,” scoffed Russell. “We’re ready for it.”

An Agreement. And all this while, Republican leader Everett Dirksen was calmly and even quietly tidying up a carefully wrapped package of some 40 amendments. He presented them in conferences with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Justice Department lawyers and Humphrey. Dirksen emerged from one all-day session in his office to announce: “We have a good agreement.” Said Kennedy: “This bill is perfectly satisfactory to me.” Added Humphrey: “We have done nothing to injure the objectives of this bill.”

Many of Dirksen’s amendments are technical, serve to tighten sloppy wording in the House-passed bill. But some are substantive, aimed at limiting the speed and frequency with which the Attorney General could move into local cases of discrimination. For example, in states that have agencies for handling bias complaints under public accommodations laws, the Federal Government would have to give the state agency at least 30 days to act before initiating federal action. In both public accommodations and fair employment, the Government would have to show that a pattern of discrimination existed before it could move in, but in no case could the Attorney General institute suit on behalf of an individual. To prosecute an employer, the Federal Government would have to prove that his refusal to hire a Negro was “willful”—often a tough matter to pin down in court. 25 Votes. Dirksen plans to discuss his package with Republican Senators this week. Mansfield and Humphrey, also, will present it at a meeting of Democrats. In practical terms, all that really matters is the Republican reaction, since some 25 of their votes are needed to shut off the filibuster. If Dirksen can persuade them to go along, there will be a new civil rights law—and it will to a significant degree be Ev Dirksen’s law.

* The Senate first began discussing civil rights on March 9, by week’s end had worked 69 calendar days without considering any other major legislation. The longest previous filibuster was a 65-day talkathon in 1846 on the Oregon bill, by which the U.S. resolved to end its agreement with Great Britain providing for joint occupancy of the Oregon Territory.

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