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On This Day: Strom Thurmond Ends Longest Filibuster in Senate History

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On Aug. 29, 1957, the South Carolina senator wrapped up a 24-hour, 18-minute-long tirade meant to stall voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Thurmond Protests Civil Rights Act

South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, prepared with cough drops and malted milk tablets, took the podium at 8:54 p.m. on Aug. 28, 1957, to delay the Senate vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Thurmond insinuated that the bill, which would ensure that black voters would have ready access to polling booths, was unconstitutional and tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Though fellow Southern Democrats opposed the bill, they had vowed earlier never to filibuster. Undeterred, Thurmond pressed on to obstruct voting on the proposal.

The senator had a steam bath earlier in the evening to rid his body of excess liquids so he would not need to use the restroom during his planned speech. Thurmond’s staff was reportedly unaware of his plans to monopolize the Senate floor, although his aide, Harry Dent, “knew something was up when his boss began collecting reading material to take to the floor,” reports The Associated Press.

Reactions to his filibuster ranged from altruistic respect to outright derision. Sen. William Knowland, R-Calif., quipped that Thurmond’s constant prattling was “cruel and unusual punishment to his colleagues,” according to the AP.

Sen. Paul Douglas, D-Ill., a vocal supporter of civil rights, handed Thurmond a glass of orange juice during the filibuster. But the Southern Democrats, feeling that they had been betrayed by Thurmond, were not amused and did not rally behind their colleague as Thurmond had hoped.

Georgia Democrat Herman Talmadge, “who yields to no man as a segregationist,” according to Time, disparaged Thurmond’s performance as a “grandstand of longwinded speeches” that might “in the long run wreak unspeakable havoc upon my people.”

In his book “Legacy To Power: Senator Russell Long of Louisiana,” Robert T. Mann writes, “Thurmond’s obstinate tactic did more than set a new record. It incurred the animosity of the southern senators who believed they had chosen the prudent course while Thurmond betrayed them.”

In the end, Thurmond persuaded no senators to change their vote on the bill. He departed the Senate chamber at 9:12 p.m. on Aug. 29, 1957. Thurmond’s 24 hours and 18 minutes on the floor broke the previous filibuster record of 22 hours and 26 minutes held since 1953 by Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse.

Two hours later, a watered-down version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed the Senate in a 62-15 vote. The act was ineffective in protecting black voting rights; It would take until the 1965 Voting Rights Act for blacks to receive truly protected enfranchisement.

Key Player: James Strom Thurmond (1902–2003)

Sources in this Story

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum: Civil Rights Act Of 1957
  • Fox News (AP): Thurmond Holds Senate Record for Filibustering
  • Time: The Last, Hoarse Gasp
  • Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: Thurmond, James Strom
  • History News Network: Strom Thurmond’s Mixed Record
  • Fox News: Strom Thurmond Dead at 100
  • CBS News: Essie Mae On Strom Thurmond
  • United States Senate: Filibuster and Cloture
  • BNET (Washington Monthly): It’s not “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”—Senate filibusters

James Strom Thurmond graduated from Clemson College, today Clemson University, in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. He worked as a farmer and teacher in his hometown of Edgefield, S.C., before becoming his county’s school superintendent in 1929. He studied law from his father, a judge, and passed the bar in 1930. Originally a Democrat as part of the “Solid South,” Thurmond represented Edgefield in the South Carolina state Senate from 1933 until he was named as a circuit judge.

He stepped down from his position to serve in World War II. His service included fighting during the Battle of Normandy, and he became a lieutenant colonel. In 1946, he was elected governor of South Carolina. He was a staunch defender of South Carolina’s Jim Crow laws.

In defiance of the civil rights plank introduced by President Harry S. Truman into the Democratic Party, notably the desegregation of the military in 1948, Thurmond and several other southern politicians walked out of the Democratic National Convention and formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or “Dixiecrats.” Thurmond ran for president on that party’s ticket in 1948, winning 39 electoral votes and carrying four states. Two years later, he lost his Senate seat.

In the 1954 presidential election, his endorsement of Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower over Democratic contender Adlai Stevenson resulted in the Democrats blocking him from nomination for a South Carolina Senate seat; however, Thurmond was elected as a write-in candidate. In 1964 he changed his party affiliation to Republican over a disagreement with the Democrats’ push for civil rights.

He would represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate through 2002, a year before he died at the age of 100. At the time, he was the longest-serving senator in history, though the record was broken in 2006 by his fellow former segregationist, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Thurmond eventually renounced his segregationist views, although he never formally apologized for his 1948 presidential bid.

Thurmond was also known for his ways with women. After his death, the Thurmond family revealed that the senator had fathered an illegitimate child, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, with a black maid when he was in his 20s. Thurmond financially supported Washington-Williams and met with her several times.

Background: Filibusters

The filibuster—speaking at lengths to delay voting on a bill—became a popular way to block a Senate vote on a bill in the 1850s, according to the Senate’s official Web site. At first, the House of Representatives had the right to filibuster, but it was phased out as Congress grew. The smaller Senate, fixed at two representatives per state, allowed for unfettered speech.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson pushed Senate to institute “cloture,” which allows the legislative body to end a filibuster by a two-thirds majority vote. This was lowered to three-fifths of the Senate, or 60 votes, in 1975.

Cloture was first used in 1919 to close a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. The rule was also invoked to end Southern senators’ 57 days of speaking out to hold up voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But times have changed since Thurmond’s infamous filibuster. “No longer does a senator hold the floor in long, impassioned debate,” writes Washington Monthly. Now, senators file their filibusters with their political party, which partially handles the procedure for the legislator.

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