Today in 1957: Strom Thurmond begins his record-breaking filibuster

August 28, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryFifty-eight years ago, Senator Strom Thurmond undertook a course of action that resulted in his setting a dubious record that stands yet today: on August 28, 1957, at 8:54 p.m., Senator Thurmond began his filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which lasted for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

In the days leading up to his filibuster, Thurmond took daily steam baths to dehydrate himself to allow himself to drink fluids while reducing the need to use the restroom.  According to his aides, who reportedly had no foreknowledge of Thurmond’s filibuster plans, the senator began collecting numerous reading materials prior to heading to the Senate floor that day.

And just what did Thurmond find for reading materials?  The voting laws of each of the 48 states, the U.S. criminal code, a Supreme Court decision, and even more laws, all of which he read verbatim.  Thurmond also discussed jury trials at length, and read from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  Thurmond also apparently discussed his grandmother’s biscuit recipe at some length (you can read the full transcript of the filibuster on the Senate’s website).

Thurmond ended his record-breaking filibuster on August 29, and the Civil Rights Act to which he was so opposed was passed two hours later.  However, even though Thurmond’s filibuster is currently recognized by the Senate as the longest on record, there is some suggestion that the filibuster is actually undeserving of the title.

According to a 1957 Time magazine article, about 4 and a half hours into the filibuster, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater asked Thurmond how much longer he would be speaking, to which Thurmond replied “about another hour.”  Goldwater then “asked that Thurmond temporarily yield the floor to him for an insertion in the Congressional Record.” Thurmond happily consented, and used that time to use the bathroom (for which he left the Senate floor).

During another incident, Thurmond temporarily yielded the floor to Senator Lyndon Johnson for an oath of office ceremony for William Proxmire, during which time Thurmond stepped into the cloakroom to eat a sandwich.  Although an aide reportedly advised him to keep the door to the room open and one of his feet on the Senate floor, Thurmond went all the way into the cloakroom.

The presiding Senate officers, however, including Vice President Richard Nixon, either failed to notice or intentionally ignored these infractions, thereby allowing Thurmond’s filibuster to officially continue until Thurmond himself chose to end it.

Although Thurmond’s record stands today, New York Senator Al D’Amato came close to breaking it in 1986, when he filibustered for 23 and a half hours against a defense spending bill that would have defunded a trainer jet program in his home state had it passed (he was successful in blocking the bill).

However, while we may see some impressive filibusters today (including Senator Rand Paul’s 10 and a half hour filibuster against the extension of certain provisions of the Patriot Act), changes in filibuster procedure and stricter rules enforcement make it unlikely that Thurmond’s record will be broken anytime soon.