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Hubert Horatio Humphrey: hero of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Jerome Liebling
Hubert H. Humphrey in 1964.

On  June 19, 1964, my 10th birthday, the Civil Rights Act passed the U.S. Senate by a 73-27 vote. It was quickly ratified by the House-Senate conference committee, which adopted the Senate version of the bill.  Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey left the Capitol that night with a few hundred supporters outside cheering “freedom.” It’s widely  reported that the Minnesotan  smiled and someone else shouted, “You give us justice senator.”  

Steve Rukavina

On the floor of the U.S. Senate that night, Sen. Everett Dirksen shared a line from a favorite poet of his who wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” so he added, “ so every denial of equal opportunity for livelihood, for an education, for the right to participate in representative government diminishes me.” It had become a deeply moral issue for both of these U.S. senators.

How many Minnesotans fully realize that Dirksen and Humphrey were the two political heroes behind the scenes that made this Senate compromise happen and thus, the Civil Rights Act of 1964? I know my dad, a history teacher at White Bear Lake High School, realized the extent of Humphrey’s role and was extremely proud of our senator and his leadership on Capitol Hill.   

Huge obstacles

However, the road to passage was marked by huge obstacles that even the strong support of President Lyndon B. Johnson could not overcome. There was a 54-day Senate filibuster that was only shut down by one vote, and that cloture vote was on  June 10. It took Republicans Hugh Scott (Pennsylvania) and New York  Sens. Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating plus three last minute Democratic commitments  from Howard Edmondson (D-Oklahoma), Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas) and Howard Cannon (D-Nevada) to shut down the Senate filibuster.

Ironically, the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate did not ensure passage as it was the Southern Dixiecrats like Sen. Bob Bryd (West Virginia) that were staunchly against the civil-rights bill, and even Sen. Al Gore, Sr. (Tennessee) voted against shutting down the filibuster and against the civil-rights legislation. 

Next, it is a myth that Johnson twisted arms and almost single-handedly passed this landmark bill. Actually, the record shows that his direct impact on winning the votes of any U.S. senators was minimal, and many insiders say he won only one key vote from Carl Hayden (D-Arizona). It’s important to note for historical perspective that Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Montana) had replaced Johnson as the Senate Majority leader and there was no vice president to lobby Capitol Hill at this time as Sen. Humphrey did not become the vice president until January 20,1965.

It was after a “Meet the Press” appearance by Humphrey on March 8 that the president called Humphrey and said, “You drink with Dirksen, you talk with Dirksen and you listen to Dirksen” and stressed that they needed to give him the chance to be a hero in history. Johnson chose Dirksen to be the key Republican ally in the Senate and was truly savvy to tap the senator from Minnesota, the Democratic majority whip, to be his floor leader for the Civil Rights Act.

Dirksen and Humphrey quietly crafted a compromise

By early May, Dirksen and Humphrey had begun private meetings that lasted one month; they circumvented the Judiciary Committee and crafted the Senate compromise bill quietly behind the scenes. As President Johnson had predicted, Dirksen crafted a few amendments that brought another handful of Republican senators on board to support the legislation.

To put this in the historical context, at a recent 2014 Constitutional Center panel discussion held in Philadelphia about the legislation, I asked  Bruce Ackerman about the role that Dirksen and Humphrey had played in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The noted constitutional lawyer and professor answered by saying that the bipartisan compromise they crafted meant success that even LBJ’s support and the national civil-rights movement could not have accomplished. He affirmed that those two senators negotiating behind closed doors and crafting the legislation was instrumental to garner the necessary bipartisan support needed and thus, passing  the U.S. Senate.   

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 showed that the U.S. Congress could work together to compromise to alter the course of American history to address the inequality of living conditions and to eliminate the institutional humiliations within American society.

First signing pens given to compromise authors

It should be duly noted that when the bill was signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964, the first two pens handed out at the Civil Rights Act ceremony at The White House were to the two senators that made it happen: Dirksen and Humphrey.

I hope all Minnesotans are very proud of the role our senator played in this historic accomplishment. Anyone would be hard-pressed to come up with one example of bipartisan support in the 21st century that could rival this bipartisan achievement.

I salute Hubert Horatio Humphrey on this 50th anniversary of his milestone 1964 accomplishment and the lasting gift he gave our country.

Steve Rukavina, formerly of White Bear Lake and a University of St. Thomas graduate, now lives in Philadelphia.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/19/2014 - 09:26 am.

    And again…

    …this is a story that may never be recorded in our history books unless voices demand it. Thank you Steve Rukavina

  2. Submitted by Peter Rachleff on 06/19/2014 - 12:02 pm.

    History is Complicated

    We should not overlook Hubert Humphrey’s role, later in 1964, in undermining Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in their efforts to displace the whites-only Mississippi Democratic Party contingent at the Democratic national convention. Readers can consult an article from this very publication by Eric Black — “The Sad Story of Humphrey’s Role at the Democratic National Convention of 1964” (www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2011/05/sad-story-humphreys-role-1964-democratic-convention). Even more detail can be found in “Civil Rights Betrayed: How the Democratic Party Shut Out the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” at http://www.isreview.org/issues/38/MFDR.shtml. While I’m at it, let me recommend Pete Daniel, DISPOSSESSION: DISCRIMINATION AGAINST AFRICAN AMERICAN FARMERS IN THE AGE OF CIVIL RIGHTS (recently published by the University of North Carolina Press). Dr. Daniel reveals the critical role played by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, particularly under the leadership of Secretary Orville Freeman, in reducing the number of African American landowning farmers from 500,000 at the end of World War to less than 45,000 in 1975. History is complicated, and we cannot learn from it, cannot avoid repeating our ancestors’ mistakes, if we tell glossed over heroic tales.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/19/2014 - 03:28 pm.

    And again…

    …the good, the bad and the sad indeed all centered on one individual, Hubert H, who according to E. Blacks’ old story does suggest that LBJ did hold more than his dog by the ears in order to wield power.

    Thanks for the point of reference here lest one forget all the finer weak points that so often sway a ‘good’ man’s intentions into compromise.

    I suppose feet-of-clay is an appropriate definition for doublespeak when it comes down to the politician…but tell me a story of Wellstone, I won’t buy it,ho!

  4. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/19/2014 - 04:44 pm.

    But then too,

    … my great Aunt Berta always says, “The ‘big god’ himself compromised; sacrificed; his son, mind you” (as the story goes) to save mankind? And what did that achieve? A world of warmongers fighting for power and “exceptionalism” is it?”

    “Where will you find anyone without compromise if they want to be top dog or god whatever; or a close facsimile like president or congressman etc. nowadays?”

    All I could respond to her on this one…”It goes with the territory I suppose?”

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/28/2014 - 08:31 pm.

    1968 was my first…

    time voting for Federal candidates. I voted Democratic. I could not vote for any Dixiecrats as they were then labelled. Only constituents of their respective states could. It is simplistic to heap all democrats into one pile and intimate they all would vote the same no matter where in the country they lived. 1968 is when the gloriously twice elected Republican President employed the southern strategy shifting the vote to Republican candidates. Same people voted but for candidates who drifted to another party the GOP. It is about what values are held not the party and it still is. What are you snappy Self identified GOPers representing today as your representatives vote as an immutable block time after time or when your ilk goes as far as altering a major public transportation thoroughfare as political retribution ? And the list could go on ! seems to be a simplistic tactic that is being put in place by GOPers not the creation of public policy through debate, discussion alteration and adaption. But I guess using that process would be much to close to respecting the generic concept of the dialectic!

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