On August 28, 1957, Senator Strom Thurmond, D-SC, began the longest filibuster in Senate history in an attempt to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. His one-man act lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes. Cots were brought in for sleepy fellow legislators as Thurmond read from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and President George Washington’s Farewell Address. The clock ticked as Strom pontificated on random issues, shared his grandmother’s biscuit recipe, and recited entries from the phone book.
The final version of the civil rights legislation awaiting vote by the Senate was the result of sustained conflict and compromise, both between the Democratic and Republican parties, and within the Democratic party itself. Senate President Lyndon Johnson, recognizing the mood of the country – even in the South – had paved the way to a version of the bill palatable to most of his fellow Southern senators. On the day of Thurmond’s last ditch oratory attempt to stop the inevitable, most Southern senators were embarrassed and upset by Thurmond’s actions, which they felt would make them look bad to their constituents. They had agreed, as part of the final compromise, not to filibuster the bill.
Thurmond, as usual, went his own way. He was a highly decorated veteran of World War II, serving in the US Army and taking part in the Normandy invasion. He was opinionated and vocal on numerous issues throughout his life and career. In 1964 he switched party alliances and supported Republicans Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. He later moderated his views and voted in favor of increased rights for African-Americans, but defended his earlier segregationist leanings as support for states’ rights. He is the only senator to reach 100 years of age while still in office and was the Senate’s second-longest serving senator in its history.