Decades before being elected a South Carolina congressman, Jim Clyburn remembers being a young schoolteacher in Charleston and giving lessons on the filibuster that Southern Democrats in the Senate were waging against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He particularly recalls some of the quotes and denouncements that were uttered in the media by the bill's opponents. What stood out, said Clyburn, now 73, was the derogatory verbal habit by those who used the word "Nigrah" instead of Negro, as was the language of the time. Some of his students got upset.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Post and Courier is exploring the impact of the historic law with an occasional series.
Still, there was a sense of optimism.
"We all thought things were going to change," said Clyburn, D-S.C., who is the state's senior lawmaker representing the black majority 6th District. "We were all convinced the filibuster would fail."
And it did.
On June 10, 1964, after two months of stall tactics, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd ended 14 hours and 13 minutes of speaking with the realization that Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota had the 67 votes needed to cut off the debate. The measure became law that July with the signature of President Lyndon Johnson.
Fifty years later, historians see that two-month period as a significant contributor toward the creation of modern-day South Carolina and the political bent of the entire region.
"By '64, the train has left the station," University of South Carolina political scientist Kent Germany said in pointing at the sunset of the white Southern Democrat and the further crumbling of segregation. The loss of the Senate fight, he said, "was a message that if Southern segregationists want to obfuscate, or slow down civil rights progress, they are going to have to do it in such a way that it would not unite the rest of the country."
The failed filibuster, along with other civil rights developments that decade, would empower millions by dismantling the Jim Crow South. For instance, it provided protections of voting rights. It banned discrimination in access to public facilities that had become the battlefields in the civil rights movement: movie theaters, buses, lunch counters and motels.
Perhaps most visibly was that segregated areas, such as "white" and "colored" restrooms and water fountains would have to disappear. It also created the notion of equal employment opportunities. While the nation began moving toward integration with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, (which tossed out the legal precedent of "separate but equal,") the Civil Rights Act showed that Congress agreed with - and would advance - the change in direction.
"Its acceptance in the South was surprisingly quick and widespread," author Michael O'Donnell wrote in The Atlantic magazine this month in his analysis of the impact. "In a stroke, the act demolished the rickety but persistent foundation for segregation and Jim Crow," he added.
The period of 1963-64 marked a quick run of political change and upheaval: Freedom rides, marches and demonstrations. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Violence throughout the South and increased federal pressure from Washington on the Dixie states to reform.
Out of the mix, newly elevated President Johnson told Congress he wanted the act to pass. And while it did get through the U.S. House of Representatives that winter, the Senate was where the Southern bloc intended to make its stand, armed with the delay tactics that were embedded in the upper body's rules. The hope was they could delay its passage until the supporters were worn down heading into the presidential conventions to be held later that summer.
Key among the filibuster players was South Carolina "Dixiecrat" Sen. Strom Thurmond, who was the 12th of 19 Southern senators who agreed to speak at length against the bill. "In my state, nobody is denied the right to vote," he said during the course of the debate as he argued the states should be allowed to determine if someone is qualified to go to the polls.
The stalemate, however, was eventually broken with the help of Republicans and with the compromise that the federal government would opt to sue a potential housing or workplace violator only in instances where there was a pattern or practice of discriminatory conduct.
O'Donnell says the resulting change from the act is that it "reached far into the daily life of Southerners, creating an unprecedented level of personal mingling between the races and making integration a daily fact of life."
After the failed filibuster, the defection of white Democrats toward the GOP took off at light speed.
That same year, Thurmond would endorse Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater for president over Johnson, laying the foundation for the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" take-over of the Old Confederacy. South Carolina would move firmly in the "red" state column by the 1980s, less than 20 years later.
Fifty years after the act's passage, those who lived through those times say there is no escaping that the fight was born out of the racial divide some Southerners were trying to preserve.
"They changed the whole Republican Party into the anti-black party," said former Democratic U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, who had not yet gotten elected to the Senate when the bill came up for a vote.
"I know it changed," he added. "You can see the Republicans where you and I live."
Perhaps the best forecast of what would transpire in South Carolina -and elsewhere in the South - was already known to Johnson at the time he signed the bill.
Former Johnson aide Bill Moyers has described visiting the president hours after the bill-signing ceremony, finding Johnson in a glum mood when he thought he should have been on a high.
"He said, 'I think we've just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life,' " Moyers quoted the president as saying. " 'And yours.' "
Martin Luther King Jr. (center) speaks at a podium, joined by Jim Clyburn (second from left of King) at Charleston’s County Hall in 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act passed. Also pictured are (first from left of King) future state Sen. Herbert Fielding, future S.C. Circuit Judge Danny Martin, future AME Bishop Z.L. Grady, and the late Esau Jenkins of Johns Island.×
Dr.Martin Luther King speaking in Charleston in 1967 at County Hall seated at left is Essau Jenkins.×