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Civil Rights Act

With civil rights marches and racial violence dominating the news, the issue of African Americans’ legal rights could no longer be ignored. A civil rights bill proposed by congressional Democrats and supported by the White House had just passed the House of Representatives when, in early 1964, the Senate took it up for debate. Twenty-one of the Senate’s 67 Democrats were from the South and publicly opposed the bill; as a bloc they began what became the longest filibuster in Senate history. The Senate’s Democratic leaders needed Republican votes to stop the filibuster and Democratic majority leader Mike Mansfield asked his counterpart, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen to step in: “I appeal to the distinguished minority leader whose patriotism has always taken precedence over his partisanship, to join with me … in finding the Senate’s best contribution … to the resolution of this grave national issue,” Mansfield said. Dirksen did more than join with Mansfield — he exhorted his colleagues to end not just the filibuster but America’s difficult past and bring the Civil Rights Act to a vote. “I appeal to all Senators,” he told the chamber. “We are confronted with a moral issue. Today let us not be found wanting …” With Dirksen’s leadership, 27 Republican senators joined 44 Democrats to end debate on June 10, 1964; the bill passed nine days later.

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