When the Senate Was Civil and Bipartisan

The upper chamber passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by a 73–27 margin, with 27 Republican votes.

Senators Everett Dirksen (bottom left) and Hubert Humphrey (bottom right) pose with their fellow senators after passing a vote for cloture on the Civil Rights Act in Washington, D.C., on June 10, 1964. (Bob Gomel / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty)

In the bitter winter of 1964, when the landmark Civil Rights Act was struggling to be born in the House of Representatives, a crucial young woman was at the center of the fight. Jane O’Grady, a 24-year-old graduate student fresh from Berkeley, had signed up to work for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, to lobby for the bill.

Her task was complex.

The pro-civil-rights forces knew that segregationists could weaken the bill—proposed by the martyred John F. Kennedy and now being pressed by Lyndon B. Johnson—by loading it up with hostile amendments. And the segregationists could most easily do so if, at any time, only 100 members of the House were on the floor and could resolve to meet as a “Committee of the Whole” without recording their votes by name.

That meant that the forces fighting for the bill would have to stake out the House galleries at all times during the debate, to make sure enough friendly members were on the floor to prevail on any vote. And—since note taking was forbidden in the galleries—those tallying the votes would have to recognize members by name and face, and keep running counts in their head as the congressmen appeared and silently signaled their votes to the clerk without an official roll call being taken.

These monitors were swiftly dubbed “O’Grady’s Raiders,” and in the pre-cellphone and pre-pager era, they devised a kind of Paul Revere–meets-telephone-tree system to round up stray or errant members, setting up camp in friendly congressional offices with hard-line, rotary dial phones to summon congressmen from steam baths, hideaways, and barrooms to make sure they were on the floor in sufficient number.

“It was nuts,” O’Grady told me four years ago when I was writing a book on the 1964 bill. “But I didn’t know that then. I don’t think it’s ever been replicated, because it’s such a nutty idea.”

The idea may have been nutty, but it was brutally effective. James A. Haley, a Florida segregationist, allowed that without “the vultures in the spectators’ galleries, who were controlling votes in the House, or at least calling the turn on them … I do not think you would have 25 votes for this monstrous bill.” Instead, the bill passed the House that winter by 290–130.

I thought of Jane O’Grady the other day, when Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher waylaid Jeff Flake in that Capitol Hill elevator, demanding that he look them in the eyes, and forcing him to call for a week’s delay in considering Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. I thought of her, too, when Mitch McConnell denounced protesters against Kavanaugh as “these clowns,” and when John Cornyn insisted, “We will not be bullied by the screams of paid protesters and name-calling by the mob.”

How far have we fallen, or how little have we changed, that yesterday’s “vultures” are today’s “clowns”?

Here’s how far we’ve fallen: Fifty-four years ago, no one stormed the doors of the Supreme Court. Instead, for weeks on end, solemn seminarians held prayer vigils near the Capitol grounds, and pro-civil-rights forces lobbied wavering midwestern Republicans, who had no black constituents and no reason to vote yes except because they feared that the God of their father might have wanted it that way.

Yes, there were a couple of vocal outbursts from the galleries (one protester was carted away to a mental hospital!), but nothing like the shouts and demonstrations of recent days. On the night the House first passed the bill, O’Grady stayed up all night with her friend Peggy Roach, of the National Catholic Conference, baking vanilla sugar cookies, frosted with chocolate equal signs, to take to the offices of the wavering members they had dogged for weeks.

The lobbying was equally creative and effective in the Senate, as the integrationists deployed clergymen of every faith.

“I hope that satisfies those two goddamned bishops that called me last night!” the die-hard Republican Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota was heard to exclaim after voting for a pro-civil-rights amendment.

But—and it’s a big but—here is what is different. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate 73–27, with 27 Republican votes. In those days, the GOP still took seriously its legacy as the party of Abraham Lincoln, and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois explicitly agreed to aid the bill’s passage in exchange for the Democrats’ promise not to use the bill as a political cudgel in that year’s presidential election.

It’s pointless, of course, to mourn the loss of civility without mourning the loss of bipartisanship that made progress possible. But it’s at least instructive to note that there really was a time, within living memory of many Americans, when cooperation on the biggest, most contentious problems of the day was not only possible but—in the highest-stakes moments—the norm.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, in 1964 (Henry Burroughs / AP)

“That confrontation with Flake in the elevator was pretty dramatic by any standard,” O’Grady told me in an email this weekend. “The rules of engagement have certainly changed. That kind of in-your-face approach was not a lobbying technique used in the civil rights legislative battles. And, during the 60s, we certainly did have free access to the congressional ‘campus.’ But the difference between then and now I think comes, in part, from the fact that the players had not retreated into ‘camps.’”

“The civil rights progress made at the time would never have happened without the participation and support of key Republicans working with Democrats,” she added. “We could sure use a Margaret Chase Smith today.”

Smith, of course, was the brave Maine Republican who called out Joseph McCarthy and battled with her fellow partisan Dirksen over a proposed national flower; he favored the marigold, she the rose.

As it happens, there is a Republican in the Senate from Maine today, who holds Smith’s old seat. Her name is Susan Collins, and that’s all you need to know.