While much of the beltway media is buzzing about Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster, he came nowhere near the record holder.
“I would try to go another 12 hours and try to break Strom Thurmond’s record, but there are some limits to filibustering and I am going to have to go take care of one of those here,” Paul said in the final minutes of his filibuster of CIA chief nominee John Brennan.
Thurmond would have been hard to beat. Then-Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond spent more than 24 hours filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He called the bill, which was designed to increase access to the polls for black voters during the height of the Jim Crow era, “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Thurmond’s dedication to blocking civil rights inspired him to come prepared. According to the Associated Press, he brought cough drops and malted milk tablets to the Senate floor, and even took a steam bath before he started in order to “rid his body of excess liquid”–and reduce the likelihood he’d need to make a trip to the restroom.
Ultimately, the one-time Dixiecrat’s 24 hours and 18 minutes on the floor could not stop the bill from passing, although he successfully set a record that has lasted for more than five decades.
Two hours after he ended his speech, a weakened version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed the Senate with only 15 votes opposing, but it ultimately failed to fully protect voting rights, leading to further civil rights legislation in the 1960’s.
By the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act came up for debate, Democratic Sen. Bob Byrd picked up the filibustering role, spending 14 hours and 13 minutes ranting against that bill (still longer than Rand Paul’s). The next year, Strom Thurmond (who had abandoned the Democratic party by that point) cast the lone Republican “nay” vote on the bill that finally fully protected African American voting rights.
President Johnson called for that law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in response to “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama State Troopers violently attacked civil rights protesters. Eight days later Johnson convened a joint session of Congress introducing the voting rights bill.
As Paul acknowledged that he would not be able to best Thurmond’s record in the early minutes of Thursday morning, he did so on the 48th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, although he probably did not realize it. Based on stamina and determination along, it appears that Paul’s distaste for drones is dwarfed by Thurmond’s opposition to civil rights, but as the future of the Voting Rights Act is in question, it’s worth remembering that not every epic filibuster has been in support of a noble cause.