Is there a single more rousing scene in all of cinema than Jimmy Stewart's climactic filibuster in Frank Capra's 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington? Well, maybe — all of cinema is a pretty sweeping category — but it's certainly up there. There's something about watching one person stand in front of a room full of people and refuse to back down that really gets the blood stirring, something that is bound to happen in HBO's All The Way. The movie depicts the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the filibuster that tried to prevent it, which became the longest in U.S. Senate history.
Of course, just how rousing a filibuster is depends on which side of the issue you fall. They're not all going make you stand and cheer like Wendy Davis' 11-hour filibuster against a 2013 Texas abortion bill. In fact, the filibuster depicted in All The Way is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Introduced to Congress by President John F. Kennedy just five months before his assassination, it soon fell on the shoulders of his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to ensure that it passed. The 1964 bill was the most sweeping civil rights legislation in American history, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin and desegregating public accommodations.
To say this bill was met with resistance would be an understatement. According to the National Constitution Center, a bloc of Southern Senators (18 Democrats and 1 Republican) stood in fierce opposition to its passage, led by Richard Russell (D-GA), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), and Strom Thurmond (D-SC). Jointly, these 19 men pulled off a filibuster that lasted a whopping 60 days. Senator Thurmond, in particular, had plenty of practice at this, having recently pulled off the longest individual filibuster in United States history, holding the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — a record that stands to this day.
As the Senate's website recounts, the obstruction finally ended when cloture was invoked on June 10, 1964 after a 14-hour filibuster conducted by Senator Byrd. Cloture is the only way to bring debate over a bill to a quick end and therefore prevent further filibustering; it requires a two-thirds majority vote and therefore is almost impossible to pull off, given the divided nature of our government. In fact, when it was invoked in 1964, it was only the fifth time in United States history that the Senate had successfully passed cloture.
The necessary votes were wrangled by Senate Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) with help from an impassioned speech by the Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) that swayed a crucial number of Republicans to the "aye" column. The vote for cloture passed 71-29, ending debate and stopping the Southern bloc from further filibustering. The Senate passed the Civil Rights Act by a 73-27 vote on June 19, 1964 — exactly one year to the day since the late President Kennedy had introduced the bill to Congress. You can see this record-breaking filibuster — and its triumphant defeat — dramatized when All The Way premieres on HBO this Saturday, May 21, at 8 p.m. ET
Image: Hilary Bronwyn Gale/HBO