President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the White House East Room on July 2, 1964. Courtesy of the LBJ Presidential Library.

The Bill of the Century

The Civil Rights Act, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, changed the shape of American society. The story of how it finally passed is just as remarkable.

By the time the Civil Rights Act reached the Senate floor for debate in March 1964, the pro-segregation Southern wing of the Democratic Party—a minority, but a minority packed with talented senior legislators—had blocked hundreds of civil rights bills. They often accomplished this by refusing to allow the Senate to vote on the legislation, a maneuver called a filibuster. Contrary to the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Wendy Davis mystique, Southern Democrat filibusters involved nearly two dozen senators, who, by coordinating their speeches, could draw out a “debate” almost indefinitely. To beat a filibuster, a bill’s supporters needed two-thirds of the Senate—67 senators—to vote for cloture, or an end to the debate—a move that had never succeeded on any previous civil rights bill. And a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act was virtually guaranteed.

As expected, the act, which included bans on discrimination in jobs, schools, and public accommodations, was immediately filibustered. At the time less than half the Senate supported cloture. Many of the opponents were Southerners, but many others were conservative Republicans who opposed segregation but were wary of expanding federal power. So while Southerners filibustered on the chamber floor, the bill’s backers—both Democrats and Republicans, along with hundreds of civil rights activists—lobbied, wheedled and sometimes outright threatened the holdout senators to change their votes.

It took more than two months, but by the second week of June, the bill’s leadership figured they were close enough to try for a cloture vote. They only had one shot: If cloture failed, Southerners would have a new burst of momentum behind the filibuster, enough to kill the bill. But if it succeeded, the bill would advance to a final vote and almost surely become law—and change the country forever.


At 7:38 p.m. on June 9, 1964, Robert Byrd of West Virginia rose in the Senate chamber. With a black leather notebook filled with several hundred pieces of paper before him, he began reading a speech that would ultimately last 14 hours and 13 minutes, well into the next morning. Byrd was doing his part to prolong the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, which had begun in late March and was already by far the longest debate over a bill in Senate history.

As Byrd settled into his marathon oration, the Senate emptied. The Democratic senator leading the charge for the bill, Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, went off to dinner with the journalist Andrew Glass from the New York Herald Tribune at the Monocle, a new restaurant set between the Senate office buildings and Union Station. Outwardly, Humphrey was confident that he had the 67 votes necessary to end the debate; at 7:30, he had called President Lyndon B. Johnson to tell him as much. Johnson, Humphrey recalled, “said he hoped so, but he said it would be difficult. I told him I was sure of it.”

Privately, though, Humphrey was worried. He knew that no civil rights cloture vote since 1950 had won even a simple majority of the senators present and voting, nor, when debate began, did a simple majority support cloture this time, either. That number had ticked up over the intervening months, but would he have enough?

A few days earlier, Mike Manatos, a White House aide, had reported that they had 42 Democrats and 23 Republicans in hand, two short of the 67 they needed (Humphrey was a bit more sanguine, counting 66 votes). After dinner, Humphrey went back to his office and spent most of the night working the phones, trying to win over the remaining fence-sitters. That night two Republicans, John Williams of Delaware and Carl Curtis of Nebraska, passed word that they would support cloture. But by 1 a.m., Humphrey still did not have commitments from the three Democratic senators he thought should have been the easiest to get—Ed Edmondson of Oklahoma, Ralph Yarborough of Texas, and Howard Cannon of Nevada.

Humphrey finally went to sleep around three in the morning, but was awake by 7:30 a.m., when he called Johnson to reiterate that he had the votes. Again, he was less sure than he let on; after hanging up with the president, he called Edmondson, Yarborough, and Cannon. The first two, as expected, fell in line and said they would support cloture. But Cannon had been an ambivalent supporter of civil rights in the past, and he felt a vote to back cloture now might hurt him in his reelection bid that fall. However, Humphrey knew that Cannon was under heavy lobbying pressure from the United Steel Workers, who had given significant financial support to his 1958 race and promised to do so again—if he supported cloture. Cannon had also journeyed to the White House to meet with the president on May 27, where he presumably received the full “Johnson treatment”—with the Texan wheedling, pleading, and perhaps threatening his former Senate colleague to vote to end debate. By the time Humphrey got Cannon on the phone that morning, he was ready to concede—almost. He told Humphrey that he would wait in the cloakroom while the votes were called; if he was needed, he would come out and vote yea. (According to the union lobbyist Jack Biedler, Cannon was finally swayed by a White House promise to open a facility in Nevada to mint silver dollars.)

As Humphrey made his final telephonic rounds, reporters began to filter into his outer office. Humphrey emerged to find a packed antechamber, where he spied his old friend Cecil E. Newman, a Minneapolis businessman and editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder, the state’s two largest black newspapers. Humphrey and Newman toasted the upcoming vote with glasses of orange juice. Humphrey then left for the Senate chamber; along the way, he passed a note to his Democratic colleague Phil Hart of Michigan, saying that they had 69 votes—two more than needed.

Meanwhile, rumors swirled about additional votes turning up—Lee Williams, a staffer for Arkansas Democrat William Fulbright, sent word to the White House that his boss had decided to vote for cloture; others said Johnson had persuaded him to vote for it after promising him the secretary of state position after the fall election. (Johnson had done nothing of the kind, and in any case Fulbright voted against cloture.)

The majority leader then ceded the floor to Richard Russell of Georgia, the leader of the Southern Democrats, who loosed one last attack on the bill. It would, he said in his 30-minute speech, “destroy forever the doctrine of the separation of powers.”

Outside, the thermometer was climbing toward an oppressive 100 degrees. Just before 10 a.m., the Senate chamber began to fill—senators on the floor, surrounded by their staffs; onlookers and reporters in the gallery, peering down to catch a glimpse of history. Senator Byrd was still unwinding his 800-page speech. He ended just nine minutes shy of the top of the hour, when Senate President Lee Metcalf, a Democrat from Montana, gaveled the day to order.

Before the vote came a cavalcade of final speeches. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, the other Democrat from Montana, who had cast himself as a neutral arbiter during the debate, downplayed his support for the bill and instead invoked the need for the bill to receive a proper vote. “The Senate now stands at the crossroads of history,” he said, “and the time for decision is at hand.” He then read a letter from one of his constituents, a young mother in Montana. “I wish there was something I could do to help,” she implored. “The only way I know how to start is to educate my children that justice and freedom and ambition are not merely privileges, but their birthrights.”

The majority leader then ceded the floor to Richard Russell of Georgia, the leader of the Southern Democrats, who loosed one last attack on the bill. It would, he said in his 30-minute speech, “destroy forever the doctrine of the separation of powers.”

The last to speak was Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who had started as a skeptic on the bill but ended up saving it by getting most of his GOP colleagues to back the legislation. The minority leader had spent the previous night at his farm in Broad Run, Virginia, writing what he intended to be a historic speech. He rose at 5 a.m., finished the final draft, clipped some flowers for his office, and rode in to the Capitol. He arrived just as Byrd was finishing.

Dirksen stood at his desk, looking pale from a recent illness and gulping pills as he spoke. He launched into a plea for his party to hew to its pro-civil-rights legacy. Equality was, he said, inevitable. Paraphrasing Victor Hugo, he said, “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. 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.”

But just as Dirksen moved toward the end of his speech, Senate President Metcalf cut him off. “The time of the senator from Illinois has expired,” he said, banging the gavel. “All time has expired.” Dirksen sat down, crestfallen over being yanked from the spotlight.

Per the Senate rules, Metcalf then ordered the clerks and staffers to leave the floor. Then he said: “The chair submits to the Senate, without debate, the question: Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close? The secretary will call the roll.” All 100 senators were on hand for the vote—a vanishingly rare occurrence.

Outside, the CBS reporter Roger Mudd, who had covered every day of the filibuster, stood in the muggy heat beside a big board constructed by the CBS art department, with the names of all the senators written on it. At the insistence of the Southern Democrats, who did not appreciate Mudd’s obvious preference for the civil rights bill, the Capitol Police had forced him to move off the Capitol grounds, so he was broadcasting from across the street. As the secretary of the Senate, Felton M. Johnston, called the roll, a CBS runner inside the Senate gallery would step outside and whisper each senator’s vote to a producer, who sat on the phone with Mudd’s producer on the other end of the line. Whenever a new vote came in, Mudd would check yea or nay beside the senator’s name on the chalkboard, just seconds after the vote was cast.

For the first time in history, cloture had been invoked on a civil rights measure. The South had been broken. Humphrey looked up at the gallery and raised his arms in silent triumph.

A few moments before the clerk read the name of Clair Engle of California, a Navy corpsman wheeled the Democratic senator—by then horribly weakened by brain cancer—into the chamber. He wore a steel brace to support his head, and a black bandana held his right arm up to his face.

The clerk called Engle’s name. Silence. He called it again. Then the Republican Tommy Kuchel, his fellow California senator and the GOP’s point man on the bill, walked over to the clerk. “I do not believe that the senior senator from California is able to speak,” he said. “I am certain, however, that he is prepared to vote. Upon the last call of his name I believe that the senators present today noticed that he made a perceptible motion of the index finger of his right hand toward his eye, in a manner which indicates that he wishes to cast a ‘yea’ vote on the bill. If the clerk will call his name again and if the distinguished senator makes the same motion, I request that the Senate record a yea vote.”

The clerk called Engle’s name again, and the ailing senator slowly lifted his finger to his eye. His vote cast, Engle was wheeled from the chamber. He died on July 30, 1964.

When Johnston got to the Democrat Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, the vote was still five short, with 19 to go, many of them avowed opponents of the bill. Nine votes later, a yea vote by the Missouri Democrat Stuart Symington put the tally at 66, just one away—but then came four nays: Democrat Herman Talmadge of Georgia, Democrat Strom Thurmond of Georgia, Republican John Tower of Texas, and Democrat Herbert Walters of Tennessee.

Finally came John Williams of Delaware, the Republican who had pledged his support to Humphrey the night before. Williams was known around the capital as “Whispering Willie”—with some irony, because while soft-spoken, he was also a relentless partisan and a tireless advocate of small government and cutting federal waste. He had used this filibuster on many occasions to take personal stands against bills that he thought might add to the federal cash cow, and he had most recently taken the Johnson administration to the woodshed over the a scandal involving kickbacks to one of the president’s former aides, Bobby Baker. None of that mattered now. “Yea,” Williams said.

The room exhaled. What no one thought could happen had happened. For the first time in history, cloture had been invoked on a civil rights measure. The South had been broken. Humphrey looked up at the gallery and raised his arms in silent triumph.

Johnston finished the roll, then read it again, a standard practice to make sure late-arriving senators had their chance to vote. This time Cannon emerged from the cloakroom and voted yea.

When the roll call was finished, the clerk read the results: 71 yea, 29 nay—two more than Humphrey’s prediction that morning of 69, which some had thought overly optimistic. Forty-four Democrats and 27 Republicans supported cloture; on the losing side were 23 Democrats and six Republicans, including Barry Goldwater and John Tower.

The 75-day filibuster—totaling 534 hours, 1 minute, and 51 seconds of debate, by far the longest in history—was over. The chamber erupted in cheers. As presidential adviser Larry O’Brien said, “It was like the home team winning the Super Bowl.”

The path to cloture was never assured, nor was it easy. Contrary to the conventional storyline, it was not primarily about “beating” the Southerners.

Rather, it was about cobbling together a coalition of votes from the liberal and conservative Republicans to pair with the pro-civil-rights Democrats. This cobbling was performed not by a single field marshal—Lyndon Johnson, or perhaps Hubert Humphrey—but by a loose and often unstable assortment of forces in Congress, the executive branch, and the civil rights movement. Senators who might never have backed the bill, such as Jack Miller of Iowa or Howard Cannon of Nevada, were brought into the yea column thanks to the persistent urging of religious and labor organizations, which had been deployed through a coordinated effort by the Justice Department and the civil rights movement. If the bill did not satisfy everyone, it was broadly acceptable—and as such it demonstrated, more than perhaps any single piece of legislation before or since, the messy political genius of American democracy.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen