Today in 1957: Strom Thurmond ends his record-breaking 24 hour filibuster

August 29, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryPolitical commentators often point to the increased use of the filibuster in the Senate as evidence of today’s highly partisan atmosphere.  True, today’s political climate is heavily sectarian – but that doesn’t mean that this is something entirely new.

After all, none of today’s politicians have the unwavering commitment to stonewalling to set the record for the longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history.  That record is currently held by Senator Strom Thurmond, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes.  The filibuster ended 57 years ago today, on August 29, 1957.

What was so repugnant to Senator Thurmond that he felt compelled to continue speaking for over 24 hours straight?  The Civil Rights Act of 1957.

The act itself didn’t contain any radical new civil rights reforms.  It set up the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that “stud[ies] alleged deprivations of voting rights and alleged discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.”  The act also instituted new bans on interfering with the rights of persons to vote for the President and members of Congress.

It wasn’t the text of the law itself to which Thurmond so strongly opposed; it was what the act represented.

In 1957, it had been 82 years since the last civil rights act was passed; this one was the first to emerge from Congress since Reconstruction.  Furthermore, it came just three years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, a significant and troubling development to staunch segregationists like Thurmond.

Thus, the 1957 Civil Rights Act represented a shift toward integration and equality.  That was what was so repulsed Thurmond into setting a new filibuster record.

In the end, though, the filibuster made little difference except to incense his fellow Southern Democrats, whom he had hoped would join with him in his opposition to the bill as a result of the filibuster.  His Southern colleagues, however, as a result of negotiations with President Eisenhower and his Republican allies in Congress, had already vowed to not filibuster the bill.  To them, Thurmond’s actions felt very much like a betrayal.

Despite the negotiations and the vow to not filibuster from the Southern Democrats, Thurmond had very much planned his actions ahead of time: he had a steam bath earlier that evening to remove any excess fluids from his body to ensure that he wouldn’t need to use the toilet during his filibuster speech.  He also brought cough drops and malted milk tablets with him to the chamber.

And just what was his filibuster speech?  What did Thurmond talk about for over 24 hours straight?  He first read, verbatim, the voting laws of each of the 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii weren’t yet states at the time).  He then moved on to the U.S. criminal code, followed by a Supreme Court decision, which was then followed by even more laws.  Thurmond also discussed jury trials at length, and read from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Thurmond was also able to take short breaks to have a sandwich or a drink when some of his more sympathetic colleagues asked questions or made short remarks.

Despite his commitment, the filibuster didn’t change a single vote, and the Civil Rights Act passed Congress on August 29, 1957, shortly after Thurmond finished.

While we may never know how Thurmond came to view his legendary filibuster later in his life, the fact that he failed to make a difference in swaying anyone to his morally dubious cause in its final stages of life, it could only generously be called a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Still, it remains historically significant for being the longest filibuster in history – for whatever that’s worth.