Mike Mansfield and the Politics of Equality:
The Senate and the Civil Rights Act of 1964
By Nolan Franti, August 2012
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ranks among the most important and influential pieces of American legislation of the twentieth century. Yet the proposed bill divided the Senate into pro- and anti-civil rights factions which threatened irreparable damage to the Senate by exacerbating ideological differences. The fact that the civil rights bill passed at all, and that the debate did not divide the Senate beyond repair, is owed in no small part to the persistently fair and even-handed guidance of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
By the spring of 1964, the Civil Rights movement, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had eroded middle-class America’s opposition to national action on behalf of civil rights by exposing the cruel injustice of southern states’ segregationist policies. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson had quickly made a civil rights bill a key priority of his domestic agenda when he succeeded to the presidency following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. Prospects for a national civil rights act of historical proportions seemed better than they had ever been.
Achieving national legislation, however, would not be easy. This was especially true in the U.S. Senate, where political, ideological, and sectional differences divided Senators over the question of whether and how to enforce political and economic equality for America’s blacks. If Southern senators chose to filibuster, it would threaten passage of significant civil rights legislation and damage the reputation of the Senate as a fair and judicious lawmaking body in the process. The challenge of procuring passage of a civil rights bill in the Senate fell to its Majority Leader, Montana Senator Mike Mansfield. Mansfield faced a seemingly intractable problem: how could he, the leader of the government’s most prestigious legislative body, achieve the passage of civil rights legislation without aggravating the political, sectional, and ideological differences that lay at the center of the civil rights debate?
Mansfield first had to work around opposition from within his own party. The leader of the opposition was Richard B. Russell, Democratic senator from Georgia and the unofficial leader of the Senate’s “inner club,” a group that wielded enormous influence within the body and opposed any civil rights legislation. Many southern Democrats, including Russell, supported state-sponsored segregationist policies and opposed civil rights legislation that would outlaw segregation on a national level. Because many of these senators held positions as key committee chairs, they were perfectly placed to kill civil rights legislation before it ever got to the Senate floor.
Mansfield’s predecessor as Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, had used a legislative strategy that emphasized results but relied on deal-making, aggressive personal persuasion, and power politics. Unlike Johnson, Mansfield chose to rely on fairness and egalitarianism in leading “a Senate of individuals.” Mansfield saw his duty as Majority Leader to promote a legislative atmosphere in which “every member ought to be equal in fact no less than in theory” and where any shortcomings should be addressed “not in the seeking of short-cuts, not in the cracking of nonexistent whips, not in wheeling and dealing, but in an honest facing of the situation and a resolution of it by the Senate itself […]” This political philosophy would guide Mansfield’s actions as Majority Leader in the coming debate over civil rights.
Mansfield made his intentions clear from the beginning. When the Senate received the House’s version of the civil rights bill, H.R. 7152, on February 17, 1964, Mansfield delivered a speech on the Senate Floor welcoming its arrival. Stating that “it is the Senate’s time and turn” to consider the issue of civil rights, he warned against the consequences of “the closed-eyes course of inaction,” arguing that “if the Senate were to choose such a course at this time…we would leave this body a less significant and less respected factor in the government of the United States.” Mansfield had thrown down the gauntlet by challenging his colleagues to take up the bill rather than attempt to circumvent it.
In accordance with his belief in fair dealings, Mansfield also reached out in his speech to his more conservative colleagues who opposed the bill. Thus, he called on “the Senator from Georgia [Mr. Russell], not as the leader of any block, not as an outstanding legislative tactician, but as the great American and the great Senator which he is…to give us not only of his immense parliamentary capacity but even more of his legal wisdom and of his heart in order that this Senate will be remembered, not for what it did not do, but because of what it did for the nation.” These words of praise and appeal would go a long way toward limiting the divisiveness inherent in the Senate debate on civil rights.
With these thoughts in mind, on Wednesday, February 19, 1964, Mansfield met with Russell to inform him of how he planned to conduct the coming debate. To Russell’s surprise, Mansfield told him that he “intend[ed] to keep him informed fully” and that he furthermore would “ask him for his advice and help.” Mansfield stressed that passage of a bill was in the best interests of the party and the President, making a note to bring up the “tough situation L.B.J. will be in if some reasonable legislation on civil rights is not forthcoming.” The meeting ended with Mansfield’s promise to Russell that “I would give him plenty of notice of any moves I would make; that the cards would always be on the table.” Mansfield had made his intentions known; now he had to determine how he would pass the bill.
Mansfield’s—and President Johnson’s—strategy was to build up a coalition of 67 liberal Democrats and Republicans needed to invoke the Senate’s cloture rule, which would end debate on the bill and bring it to the floor for a vote. Then only a simple majority, 51 votes, would be needed to pass the legislation. Overcoming the filibuster of the southern Senators would prove to be one of Mansfield’s most difficult tasks yet as Majority Leader. Working hand in hand with the Democratic floor handler of the bill, Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), and Mansfield’s Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), Mansfield methodically assembled the needed 67 votes over the course of the spring and early summer of 1964. President Johnson, who was leading the public campaign for the civil rights bill, worked with Mansfield and Humphrey behind the scenes in the effort to convince recalcitrant Senators to vote for cloture.
On June 8, 1964, Mansfield joined 70 other senators in invoking cloture and ending debate on the bill. The filibuster had consumed a total of 543 hours, 1 minute, and 51 seconds, the longest in the Senate’s history. The measure itself passed on June 19. On July 2 President Johnson signed the joint House-Senate bill into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With one stroke, the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race or gender in public accommodations and by employers or in unions. The Act also paved the way for further Johnson administration legislation on federal enforcement of voting rights in 1965 and fair housing in 1968.
On June 22, 1964, three days after the Senate’s passage of the bill, Mansfield sent to all 99 of his Senate colleagues a letter in which he reflected that the civil rights debate “might have opened schisms which would have been years in closing” and expressed his gratitude “for the help, the understanding and the cooperation you gave to me in striving to prevent it.” He went on to say that he believed “the character of the Senate’s handling of this issue…will mean a great deal to the nation. I know that it meant a great deal to me personally.” Again thanking the Senators for their help in preserving the decorum of the debate, Mansfield ended with the sentiment, “Members, regardless of views on the substance of the measure, treated me with the utmost kindness and consideration and I am deeply appreciative.”
Mansfield received many replies to his June 22 letter from his colleagues. Some letters, from fellow proponents of the bill, were congratulatory. Others, from opponents, thanked him for his fairness and moderation during the debate. All of the letters reciprocated Mansfield’s own sense of fair play and mutual respect. Significantly, one of the letters was from Richard B. Russell. Though Russell acknowledged that “the long fight was indeed trying and I am grateful indeed that it did not leave any more permanent scars than it did,” he also credited the fact that no significant damage had been done to Mansfield’s “patience and understanding and the complete confidence which all the members of the Senate have in your sense of fairness.” Coming from a Senator who had opposed the civil rights bill from the very beginning, the letter was an endorsement of Mansfield’s politics of equality in leading the Senate. The letter was also heartfelt thanks from one fellow Senator to another for helping to preserve, despite their differences, the decorum and reputation of the Senate.
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