Segregationist filibuster stands as landmark in Thurmond's legacy

COLUMBIA -- A half-century ago today, Strom Thurmond ended what remains the longest filibuster in the long-winded history of the U.S. Senate.

Thurmond -- nine years removed from a campaign for president undertaken to protect segregation -- spoke against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

His filibuster irked even his fellow segregationists in the Senate, who had succeeded in watering down the act's most important protections for black voting rights.

But Thurmond went on his one-man stand against the bill anyway, damning it as an attack on the Constitution and in the process re-established himself as one of segregation's biggest supporters.

The filibuster is an important part of Thurmond's legacy. It captured his white-supremacy views of the time as it revealed his mastery in cloaking his opposition to integration in cultural and legal terms.

"I'm not against civil rights," Thurmond said during his marathon address. "I'm not against voting. I'm for real civil rights."

Waning days

Time has obscured the context of Thurmond's filibuster.

He had run for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948, winning four Southern states and declaring that there were not enough troops in the U.S. Army to force Southern whites to accept desegregation.

But time was not on segregation's side.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the concept of "separate but equal" in the school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Black political influence rose.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and new Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, D-Texas, both had a desire to appease this emerging constituency.

Thurmond, then a Democrat, faced his own pressures.

Many white South Carolinians were dead-set against integration and wanted their representatives to fight it, no matter the future political implications.

S.C. Gov. George Timmerman, leaving office in 1959 and thought to be a potential opponent of Thurmond, said South Carolinians should "demand that their representatives stand up for what is right or step aside and let there be elected men with political courage who will."

On the day Thurmond's filibuster began, The State newspaper ran a front-page story describing a letter written by Robert M. Kennedy, a former state senator from Camden, urging South Carolina's leaders to oppose the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

Kennedy described the bill as "vicious" and said: "Our only hope now is in Senate filibuster."

A filibuster had already been rejected by Democratic leaders in the Senate.

Johnson and U.S. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, dean of the Southern senators, had struck a deal to weaken the bill.

Russell, who vigorously opposed the bill but knew he did not have the votes to sustain a filibuster, told Johnson that Southern senators would not try to talk the bill to death.

Unwittingly, he left the door open for Thurmond when he said Southern senators could speak out against the bill as they saw fit.

Strom Thurmond took the Senate floor at 8:55 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1957.

As Thurmond stood against integration, it's doubtful anyone in the chamber knew he had a 31-year-old daughter from a relationship with his family's black maid.

'Some educating to do'

Thurmond would filibuster the bill, but, perhaps sensitive to the deal Russell had cut, he would not call it a filibuster.

"I wouldn't use that word," an Associated Press story in The State quoted an unnamed Thurmond aide as saying. "The senator says he has some educating to do."

In his book "Strom," Jack Bass wrote that Thurmond knew he would be speaking for a long time. He had taken steam baths to dehydrate so that, when he drank liquids, he could absorb the fluids without going to the bathroom and losing his right to the floor.

His wife, Jean, fed him a large sirloin steak. News reports said Thurmond ate bits of sirloin at some points during his marathon speech, in violation of Senate rules banning food from the chamber floor.

Thurmond made several deviations from the strict rules of the Senate during his filibuster.

After answering a question from a colleague, he sat down, potentially losing his right to the floor. After an aide whispered to him, he sprang to his feet.

He left the chamber briefly to eat a sandwich, again creating an opening for another senator to claim the floor. But Vice President Richard Nixon, presiding over the Senate, did not notice -- or, out of senatorial courtesy, pretended not to notice.

Just before Thurmond's quick break ended, The Associated Press described how Nixon, examining some papers, called on him:

"The chair recognizes the gentleman from South Carolina," Nixon said, without looking up, and Thurmond came dashing back into the chamber, his mouth full of food.

Popping malted milk tablets, Thurmond did not yield the floor until 9:12 the next evening, breaking the previous filibuster record held by Sen. Wayne Morse, a Democratic senator from Oregon who in 1953 spoke against an oil-drilling bill for 22 hours and 26 minutes.

Two hours after Thurmond's filibuster ended, the Senate voted 60-15 in favor of the act.

The watered-down legislation, which established a commission on civil rights and created a civil rights division in the Justice Department, is not seen today as momentous in its own right. Its importance, historians and civil rights advocates say, lies instead in its legacy as a protector of the big changes that would come later.

Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said Thurmond may have fretted that his segregationist stands left him more vulnerable as he sought re-election.

But Thurmond, who lost his first bid for the U.S. Senate in 1950, never lost another election.