Everett McKinley Dirksen: Fiscal conservative and champion of civil rights

U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Pekin)
When Illinois legislators passed a state budget with $2 billion of extra spending this spring, some Illinoisans might have remembered words popularly attributed to one of the great Illinois political leaders of the 20th century, U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Pekin), “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money!”

Everett Dirksen spent nearly 50 years in public service, starting in the Army during World War I, and finishing as Republican leader of the U.S. Senate. He worked as the general manager of a local dredging company after the war, was active in the American Legion, and served as a finance commissioner in Pekin before being elected to Congress in 1932.

In Congress, Dirksen supported some New Deal programs, including the National Labor Relations Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Over time, however, he began to believe that the New Deal was not proving very effective, and he became concerned by the growing size of government and its insatiable appetite for spending. Dirksen wrote that, “the New Deal was long on reform, much longer on relief, yet very short on actual recovery and restoration of normal conditions."

Dirksen helped lead the movement of the Republicans from the isolationism of the early 20th century to the more internationalist stance of World War II and the Cold War years. Having initially opposed the Lend-Lease Act and similar measures, Dirksen in the fall of 1941 became a supporter of aid to Britain just ahead of the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, Dirksen supported the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-ravaged nations.

Having retired from the House in 1948 due to a health issue, Dirksen launched a comeback in 1950, defeating Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas in the first of four Senate elections he would win. As Senator, Dirksen exemplified the Midwest conservatism of the 1950s. He and House Republican Leader Charles Halleck made so many appearances on the new medium of television in the 50s that they were soon dubbed the “Ev and Charlie Show.”

Senator Dirksen was a dedicated fiscal conservative, fighting against the continued growth in the size of government and its budget. He became one of the Senate’s most quotable members, especially on issues like government spending. In a 1961 speech, Dirksen took issue with what was then thought to be an exorbitant amount of government spending.

“A hundred million dollars, Mr. President, is only a drop in the bucket." Dirksen said. “I grew up at a time when on Sunday, if I had been a good boy for the whole week, my mother gave me a penny and said to me, ‘My son, don't spend it all in one place.’ We have come a long way from then. The classic example is here tonight, when the Senator from Colorado says a hundred million dollars is ‘a drop in the bucket.’ No wonder we are nursing a $295 billion debt.”

One of Dirksen’s proudest accomplishments was providing the votes which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dirksen had been a fighter for civil rights for years, having already introduced 19 civil rights bills. He worked against employment discrimination, lynching, poll taxes and sought to expand voting rights and school desegregation. But by 1964, a more comprehensive civil rights bill looked to be ready for passage.

Dirksen gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, which ended a three-month filibuster by southern Democrats aimed at stopping the bill. When the final vote was called, Dirksen succeeded in bringing along a larger proportion of his Republican caucus to vote in favor of civil rights than President Lyndon Johnson had been able to achieve with the Democrats.

After the vote, Dirksen was asked what had caused him to become such a champion for civil rights. He replied, “I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind."
Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen died in Washington in September 1969. In his eulogy, President Richard Nixon described Dirksen’s influence on American history, “Everett Dirksen has had a hand in shaping almost every important law that affects our lives. His impact and influence on the nation was greater than that of most Presidents in our history."

Even as he rose to the heights of political power in Washington, Dirksen never forgot his beloved Pekin, and Pekin never forgot him. Outside of politics, one of Dirksen’s great passions was gardening, specifically marigolds. He tried for several years without success to have the marigold named the national flower of the United States. Every year, his hometown celebrates his memory with the Pekin Marigold Festival. Pekin is also home to the Dirksen Congressional Center.

Senator Dirksen is buried beneath a plain, humble marker at Glendale Memorial Gardens in Pekin.