An idea whose time has come

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was among the most important pieces of legislation passed in the 20th Century, or perhaps in all of American history. The effort to pass the law was driven by some of the towering figures of the 1960s: Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, Hubert Humphrey in the Senate and Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

But its passage would ultimately come down to a rather unlikely figure, the bespectacled, eminently-quotable senator from Illinois, Everett McKinley Dirksen.

Born in Pekin to German immigrant parents on January 4, 1896, Everett Dirksen would dedicate almost half a century of his life to the nation’s service. After losing his father when he was only nine years old, Dirksen graduated from Pekin High School in 1913 and worked a number of odd jobs while attending the University of Minnesota. He got his first taste of politics when he gave speeches in support of Presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes in 1916.

When the nation entered World War I, Dirksen’s family felt the acute pressure and scrutiny many German immigrants were under at that time. He enlisted in the Army, earned a lieutenant’s commission and served with an artillery battery during the intense fighting around St. Mihiel. He was stationed overseas for a total of 17 months. Returning home after the war, Dirksen was active in the American Legion, but good fortune in business initially eluded him. He and his brothers eventually found success in a bakery they opened.

Dirksen entered politics in 1926 when he was elected Pekin city finance commissioner. He soon set his sights higher, and after an unsuccessful run in 1930, he was elected to Congress in 1932, arriving in Washington at the same time as President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Dirksen defied easy classification. A Republican who supported many New Deal programs, he also
embraced his party’s stance of isolationism as the rest of the world descended toward another world war. Over his years in the House he became increasingly skeptical of the success of the New Deal. At the same time, America’s entry into World War II jolted him out of his isolationism and he became a strong advocate of American engagement in the world, a belief he continued to hold after the war.

Photo from the Dirksen Congressional Center
He began suffering from a rare eyesight condition in 1947, an ailment so severe that one doctor even recommended removal of his eye. Dirksen instead sought treatment and eventually recovered, but not before giving up his Congressional seat in 1948.

But he didn’t stay sidelined for long. In 1950 he challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Scott Lucas. It was the first of his four wins in races for the Senate.

Dirksen soon turned heads in the Senate, with his deep speaking voice and flowery style, he was nicknamed “the wizard of ooze” by critics. He was chosen as the Republican leader in the Senate in 1959, a position he would hold until his death, and one which placed him squarely at the vital crossroads of the Senate when it debated the Civil Rights Act five years later.

Dirksen established a good working relationship with his Democrat counterparts, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and his successor Mike Mansfield. He helped gather Republican support for one of President Kennedy’s top foreign policy priorities, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. It was his relationship with Mansfield and Johnson, who became President after Kennedy’s assassination, which would cause them to turn to the Illinoisan at a crucial moment in the drive for passage of the Civil Rights Act.

While thousands of marchers led by Dr. King worked at the grassroots level, all eyes were on Washington in the spring of 1964 for long-awaited legislative action.

“I appeal to the distinguished minority leader whose patriotism has always taken precedence over his partisanship, to join with me, and I know he will, in finding the Senate’s best contribution at this time to the resolution of this grave national issue,” Mansfield said to Dirksen during his speech introducing the bill.

As Republican leader in 1964, Dirksen led a small caucus in Washington: just 33 senators. Democrats held a tremendous majority, but were far from unified around civil rights. Segregationist southerners had successfully used the Senate’s filibuster rule to block House-passed legislation on civil rights year after year. To break a filibuster in 1964 required 67 votes, which Mansfield and his floor leader, Humphrey, could not get solely from their side of the aisle. They looked to Dirksen for help.

“But Dirksen was in an awkward position,” wrote historian Stan Mendenhall. “He was asked to deliver Republican votes in support of a Democratic president against a faction of that president's party. How could Dirksen reconcile this with his party, constituents and colleagues?”

Dirksen had supported civil rights legislation in the past, on issues like school desegregation, banning of poll taxes and stopping employment discrimination. He had pressed the Justice Department to do more to protect the Freedom Riders who were subjected to repeated physical violence while fighting for civil rights in the south.

“Whatever the color of a man’s skin, we are all mankind,” Dirksen said. “So every denial of freedom, of equal opportunity for a livelihood, or for an education, diminishes me.”

To lock in Dirksen’s support and that of his caucus, Johnson urged Humphrey to conduct lengthy consultations with Dirksen, getting the Illinoisan’s input into every maneuver, every amendment, practically every word of every draft of the bill.

“This bill can’t pass unless you get Ev Dirksen,” the President advised Humphrey. “You get in there to see Dirksen. You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen. You listen to Dirksen.”

Leaders of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom meet with Senator Everett Dirksen
at the Capitol. Left to right: Whitney Young, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Walter Reuther,
Everett Dirksen, John Lewis. Photo from

Thus began a painstaking process of negotiations, where the bill was recalibrated in order to gain one senator’s vote while not risking the loss of a different senator. Dirksen introduced dozens of amendments, some substantive, some technical. Some were meant to be adopted, others were simply bargaining chips or trial balloons. Gradually, the final draft of the bill began to take shape as Dirksen sought to work with Mansfield and Humphrey to accumulate enough support for passage. For months, as the southerners droned on in their filibuster, Humphrey and Dirksen conducted these delicate maneuvers to build support for the legislation.

“I doubt very much whether in my whole legislative lifetime any measure has received so much meticulous attention,” Dirksen said in May as work on the bill neared its conclusion.

At last, on June 10, 1964, the legislation was ready to advance. Dirksen, recovering from a severe cold, rose on the Senate floor to announce his support of the bill and the support of a significant enough portion of his caucus to break the longest filibuster in history and ensure its passage. He offered these memorable words: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied.”

He closed his speech, “We are confronted with a moral issue. Today let us not be found wanting in whatever it takes by way of moral and spiritual substance to face up to the issue.”

The bill passed 73-27. After the vote, Mansfield credited Dirksen with making it a reality.

“This is his finest hour. The Senate, the whole country is in debt to the Senator from Illinois,” Majority Leader Mansfield said.

To stress the bipartisan nature of the agreement on the legislation, Dirksen appeared in a photo alongside Humphrey as the pro-civil rights senators celebrated the breaking of the filibuster. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law on July 2 by President Johnson, with Senator Dirksen and Dr. King among those at his side.

“You’re worthy of the Land of Lincoln,” Johnson told Dirksen, “And a man from Illinois is going to pass the bill, and I’ll see that you get proper attention and credit.”

Dirksen would repeat his role the next year in support of the Voting Rights Act. He was re-elected to a fourth term in 1968, and in 1969 he was chosen once again as Senate Republican Leader. But that fall he was diagnosed with lung cancer. After a surgery to remove a mass from one of his lungs he developed pneumonia and died on September 7, 1969. He lay in state in the Capitol rotunda and then returned home to be buried in Pekin’s Glendale Memorial Gardens.

In addition to his legislative achievements, Dirksen was well-known for many other aspects of his life and career, not the least of which was his talent as a speaker. A recording of his poetry was released in 1966 and made it onto the Billboard charts. He won a Grammy two years later for Best Documentary Recording. He appeared on popular television shows like What’s My Line and The Red Skelton Show.

Ironically, the quote for which Dirksen is most famous is something there is no known record of him ever actually saying.

Photo from the Dirksen Congressional Center
“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money!” Dirksen has been reported to have said. It is a sentiment certainly in keeping with his reputation as a fiscal hawk, but one which an exhaustive search by the Dirksen Congressional Center has never uncovered. An anecdote about the quote lives on, however. The story goes that a constituent asked Dirksen about the quote and the Senator laughed and replied that a reporter had misquoted him and he liked the misquote so much he never thought to deny it.

Today Dirksen’s memory is honored throughout Illinois and in Washington DC. A Senate office building on Capitol Hill was named for him in 1972. The Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin maintains his archives and conducts educational programs on Congressional research. His hometown of Pekin honors his memory every year with its Marigold Festival, which celebrates the Senator’s love of gardening and his efforts to make the marigold the national flower of the United States.

Dirksen is memorialized with a statue on the east lawn of the Illinois State Capitol. On the statue’s pedestal is a vase of Dirksen’s beloved marigolds as well as an elephant and a donkey alongside an oil can meant to symbolize Dirksen’s ability to bring both parties together.

“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles,” Dirksen once said. “The first of which is to be flexible at all times.”