August 28,1963. I was ten, pushing on eleven. Once more I saw history unfold through lens of CBS News and covered by Walter Cronkite. That network and his voice covered unprecedented social change with a calm elegance, treating the audience as thinking, intelligent people. The voice of news as I grew through the tragedies yet to unfold.
Of course I refer to the March On Washington and Reverend Martin Luther King's amazing "I Have A Dream" speech.
The most reliable estimates I have found put the crowd at 200-250,000 people.
There's no reason to repeat what I heard at home. My parents were products of their time. As were too many, north and south, who never tried to overcome the wrong they learned. To listen to their better angels seemed futile in the face of such hatred and anger.
That March in the summer of '63 was massive. It was peaceful. And many hoped once the coloreds blew off some steam everything would go back to normal. Progress at geologic speeds.
The rhetoric of the speeches was uplifting. King's voice wasn't the only one that day raised in hope. Raised in a cry for freedom and equality.
Earlier that summer President Kennedy called on Congress to act. After the violence in the South he decided the time had come to forever change America. Kennedy knew it was going to be a brutal political war and decided to wage it. He was going to need his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, the former Majority Leader of the Senate, to twist arms to ensure passage.
The mood of the nation was changing. We saw Bull Connor's deputies beat demonstrators to the ground. We saw the dogs loosed on men and women. We watched as fire hoses were turned on people only wanting the American Dream. Equality. As we watched in horror people were accepting Jim Crow was an evil chapter of American History far overdue to be closed.
Kennedy had the bill introduced in the House, a more liberal body ready to take on the issue. Unfortunately, Jack Kennedy never lived to see the bill pass. He was gunned down in Dallas on 11/22/1963. President Johnson was determined to pass the strongest possible bill.
The Bill passed the House on February 10,1964, 290 for, 130 against.
In the Senate it was filibustered on introduction.
Johnson was a consummate political deal maker and knew where the bodies were buried. Hell, he'd buried many of them. The President knew no amount of pressure, arm twisting or political favors would bring The Segregationist, Southern, Democratic Senators back into the fold. Another way had to be found to break the filibuster and force cloture. He turned to Everett Dirksen(R-IL), Senate Minority Leader.
Both men knew this would be tricky. They met often in The White House and charted a course of action over drinks. The Minority Leader knew he'd have problems using Republican votes to bypass a mutiny by a wing of a sitting President's party.
Dirksen had reservations on the bill, mostly doubts about constitutional issues. He also realized something had to be done.
Dirksen was an orator of the sort the Senate hasn't seen much of since the first half of the Twentieth Century.
I recall his low stentorian voice from appearances on TV. Like Johnson, he knew how to work the Senate.
He did so.
He offered a flurry of amendments, using them to gauge positions held by his colleagues. He seemed lukewarm at times, drawing out a better picture of the stances being taken. The President and the minority leader moved in May of 1964.
He presented the Republican version and immediately faced a mutiny of his own, led by Senator Hickenlooper (R-IN).
Senator Dirksen called a press conference.
Using his considerable speaking skills he lectured the press about the moral need for a Civil Rights Bill. He claimed and held the moral high ground as he revealed his unequivocal support of the bill. This amazing example of leadership quashed the revolt. Now it was simply a matter of keeping the Caucus in line till the vote.
On June 10,1964, Senator Everett Dirksen took the floor of the Senate and gave a quiet,moral argument to the Senate and the nation about an idea whose time had come. He was exhausted.
The eighty-three day filibuster was broken, clearing the way for passage of The Civil Rights Act Of 1964.
This would not have happened without the Senate Republicans and their leader working in concert with a Democratic President poised to crush the GOP presidential nominee. They did this for America. In an election year.
Needless to say this could not happen today. there is a different tenor in the strident rhetoric of the GOP. Rather than visionary, patriotic leadership, there is petty, partisan bickering passing as America's only hope to stop the tide of progress.
Can anyone see any way that landmark bill could be passed in this poisonous political climate? A climate where it seems to be a badge of honor to gut the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. Both bills were helped to passage by Senator Dirksen. Can anyone imagine Mitch McConnell showing that level of political courage?
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington was this week. Rather than step forward, acknowledge their role and claim their place in History the GOP decided to not attend. It wasn't the usual crowd of wackos only that stayed away. it was all of them. Every. Single. One.
When they realized the optics a desperate attempt at spin was hurriedly put forth. The damned Liberals didn't invite them. That was quickly exposed as the lie it was.
So, when they had a chance to reach out to a diverse crowd the GOP passed on it.
When they had a chance to stand with America, they passed.
When they had a chance to show everyone how petty and out of touch they were, they jumped on it.
The party of stupid, indeed.