• U.S.

The Congress: Everybody’s Getting Fat

3 minute read

Georgia’s Richard Russell rose in the crowded Senate chamber last week and surveyed his club with fatherly approval. The Senate, drawled Russell, is “a bulwark against precipitate action inspired by the unthinking passions of a great mob.” The “great mob” in this case included the Kennedy Administration, the Senate leadership of both parties, the Civil Rights Commission and most U.S. Senators. They wanted to destroy the literacy test, the South’s most effective device for denying the vote to Negroes. And Russell’s tightly disciplined team of filibustering Southern Democrats held the bulwark with ease.

The two-week Senate debate had all the conviction of a professional wrestling match: everybody played his role for the crowd, but nobody got hurt. The Kennedy Administration sponsored the bill, which proposed that a sixth-grade education be proof enough of literacy in federal elections. But, almost as if the whole thing were merely to make propaganda in the North, Kennedy aides made no real effort to push the bill. The Republicans—whose 1960 platform carried a similar proposal—were happy to be cosponsors, but that was about all. And Majority Leader Mike Mansfield ran the proceedings with a kind of tippy-toe Montana courtesy that called for no sessions at night, little interest during the day, and the gentlemanly script posted well in advance.

A Handy Chance. Finally Mansfield moved to close off debate—and he took an awful drubbing. Democrats split 30-30, and Republicans voted 23 to 13 against the motion. Thus, far from the two-thirds majority he needed for cloture, Mansfield failed to get even a simple majority.

After his defeat on the cloture motion. Mansfield moved to table the bill, and announced that a vote against tabling would be interpreted as support for the bill itself. The vote against tabling was 64-33, meaning that almost two-thirds of the Senators favored a bill that they were unable or unwilling to bring to a vote. Mansfield warned that the contrast between the overwhelming sentiment for the bill and the failure to get it to a vote would be a powerful argument for tightening up the cloture rule at the beginning of the next session. But the tabling motion was also a handy chance for Senators to record themselves on whichever side seemed politically advisable—without voting on an actual bill. Said a disgusted newsman: “This is the damndest thing I ever saw. That bill hasn’t got a chance and everybody knows it. Yet everybody’s getting fat off of it.”

Wrong, as Usual. Not everybody—for down South, Negroes are still being denied the right to vote. In Forrest County, Miss., the Rev. John Miles Barnes, a Negro with a tenth-grade education, who has tried to register several times a year for the past eleven years, tried again last week. He failed. Voting Registrar Theron C. Lynd, who has already been cited for contempt for failing to obey a federal court order, asked Barnes to copy and interpret a section of the Mississippi constitution. Lynd was, as usual, dissatisfied with the result. According to the Justice Department, other Negroes found illiterate by Lynd include five college graduates, one of whom was a National Science Foundation Scholarship winner.

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