By Vincent L. Hall
President Barack Obama was primed, passionate, and personal as he delivered words of comfort and discomfort during a tribute to the late Rep. John Lewis. “O” minced no words. The U.S. Senate needed to retire the filibuster. It has been used as a tool to stifle civil rights’ forward progress at every significant turn. The filibuster question has become paramount afresh as this nation seated an equal number of Democrats and Republicans during the most politically-polarized period in our history. President Joe Biden needs to lean toward the filibuster’s demise if he is to have any real success.
Gil Scott Heron, the original Black rapper, understood that you must challenge every rule and law to stage a revolution. Heron ridiculed the Negro leadership of his time by saying that they were not ready for “the revolution.” He reminded us that you don’t yield to stop signs or traffic signals during a revolution. Biden promised to pass turnkey legislation on immigration, expand voting rights, green initiatives, and infrastructure enhancements. He will need to run the Republican red light, known to us as the filibuster. A feistier, less congenial Obama laid it out in a July 30, 2020 article in Vox Magazine.
“Obama called for legislation restoring the Voting Rights Act, much of which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s decisions in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Abbott v. Perez (2018). He also endorsed other democratic reforms, including an end to partisan gerrymandering, extending statehood to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, and making Election Day a national holiday. And then, he called upon the Senate to remove an obstacle that has consistently stood in the way of civil rights legislation throughout American history. ‘If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,’ said Obama. The filibuster typically allows a bloc of 41 senators to prevent legislation from passing, and Republican filibusters stymied much of Obama’s policy agenda during his presidency.”
If Joe Biden does not kill the filibuster, he too will see many of his initiatives and appointments die in the well of the Senate. Old school racists like Strom Thurmond, who made the process famous, have either gone to heaven or hell. However, the spirit of White privilege and resistance is alive, well, kicking ass and taking names. Thurmond’s historic filibustering of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 lasted from August 28, 1957, at 8:54 p.m. until 9:12 p.m. the following night.
His preparation for the 24-hour assault on civil rights was as sinister and situated as the resolve that we see in the GOP today in Georgia and other red states. Strom took a steam bath earlier in the day to remove excess liquids and to avoid any “accidents.” He stationed one staffer in the cloakroom with a pail in case of an “emergency evacuation.” Strom, the father of a 32-year-old Black daughter at the time, went to the floor with cough drops and malted milk tablets. He was thorough in planning the moment. His Republican comrades would offer short remarks intermittently so that he could scarf down a sandwich or get a second wind.
To fill the space, he read each of the 48 states’ voting laws, the U.S. Criminal code, a Supreme Court decision, and various other laws; verbatim. Twenty-four hours is a long time, so he allowed Majority- Leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson to swear in a new Senator from Wisconsin, talked about jury trials, read the Declaration of Independence, and eventually offered his summation. “Mr. President, I urge every Member of this body to consider this bill most carefully. I hope the Senate will see fit to kill it.
I expect to vote against the bill.” The Senate reportedly erupted in laughter. However, the point of privilege he seized against democracy was not funny at all. Thurmond’s and subsequent filibusters are a travesty of justice. Like him, I hope the “Senate will see fit to kill it.”
Vincent L. Hall is an author, activist, and award-winning columnist.