Once upon a time in America, believe it or not, there was a political species known as “moderate Republican.” This species often worked with Democrats in the national interest, and respected its party’s Abe Lincoln legacy. This was never more true than in 1964, thanks to the work of Senator Everett Dirksen.
And some of you are going, “Huh? Who the heck is that?”
We’ve lately been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic Civil Rights Act – there was a big confab the other day at the LBJ Library, which is fitting, since LBJ was the president who got the job done – but I’m most interested in what Dirksen did. Because the Senate Republican leader is really the guy who put aside partisanship to save the day.
Here’s a narrative that more archaic than audiocassettes and Astroturf:
In the spring of 1964, the proposed law banning racial discrimination in public accomodations was gummed up in the Senate, thanks to a filibuster by racist southern Democrats. Back then, 67 votes were required to break that kind of stalemate. LBJ didn’t have enough votes; to un-gum the bill, he needed a couple dozen Republicans. Fortunately, in those days, the Senate Republicans were very diverse. Moderate Republicans actually roamed the land, in states like New York and California and Massachusetts.
But Dirksen was the guy who had to corral the necessary votes for the civil rights law. Imagine what would’ve happened if it had been someone like Mitch McConnell.
Dirksen hailed from Illinois, Lincoln’s state, and even though he had reservations about the Civil Rights Act – and had voiced those reservations during the long spring stalemate – he ultimately decided that it would be morally wrong to soil his party and obstruct the march to equality. So on June 10, when the majority Democrats formally sought to break the filbuster, Dirksen rose from his chair, gulped a few pills to steady his poor health, and brandished a 12-page speech that he’d typed on Senate stationery the previous night.
After a few parliamentary preliminaries, Dirksen quoted Victor Hugo (of Les Miserables fame): “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” That set the tone.
“The time has come for equality,” said Dirksen. “It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.” Black Americans “have become teachers and professors, doctors and dentists, engineers and architects, artists and actors, musicians and technicians. They have become status minded. They have sensed inequality. They are prepared to make the issue. They feel that the time has come for the idea of equal opportunity….America grows. America changes. And on the civil rights issue we must rise with the occasion.”
Equality, he said, “has been the living faith of our (Republican) party. Do we forsake this article of faith, now that equality’s time has come, or do we stand up for it….There is no substitute for a basic and righteous idea.”
Dirksen said there are times when the federal government needs to step in. He reminded his fellow Republicans that, 60 years earlier, the feds tried for the first time to regulate food safety – and “the speeches made on this floor against this intrusion of federal power sound fantastically incredible today.” The same thing happened, he said, when the feds moved to outlaw child labor, and to enact the 40-hour work week.
Dirksen noted, “These are but some of the things touching closely on the affairs of the people which were met with stout resistance, with shrill and strident cries of radicalism, with strained legalisms, with anguished entreaties that the foundations of the Republic were being rocked. But an inexorable moral force which operates in the domain of human affairs swept those efforts aside and today (those laws) are accepted as parts of the social, economic, and political fabric of America.”
And so, with respect to the civil rights bill that furthered empowered the federal government, “I appeal to all senators. We are confronted with a moral issue. Today let us not be found wanting in whatever it takes by way of moral and spiritual substance to face up to the issue…”
Minutes later, they faced up. Twenty seven Republicans followed Dirksen’s lead and voted to break the filibuster – only six Republicans dissented – and that greased the wheels for ultimate Senate passage. LBJ told Dirksen, “You’re worthy of the Land of Lincoln.”
I bring all this up not just to help mark the anniversary feted at LBJ’s library, but to buttress a truth that is self-evident:
If such a civil rights bill were ever floated in today’s political environment, there is not even the remotest fantastical possibility that today’s Republicans would rise to the occasion. Republicans in the mold of Everett Dirksen are long dead, or they’ve been methodically expunged. Today’s ideologically pure Republicans don’t cross the aisle in a burst of moral rectitude to champion civil rights; instead they repair to their bunker, working to curb the right to vote.
And that is a national tragedy.
After LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, he told an aide, “We just delivered the South for the Republican party for a long time to come.” How right he was. The racist southern Democrats commenced a white flight to the GOP, moving the party rightward and making it ever more inhospitable for northern moderates. Indeed, the late ’60s white flight was aided and abetted by Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy. GOP strategist Kevin Phillips said it plainly in May 1970, telling The New York Times: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”
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