By PAM ADAMS
OF THE JOURNAL STAR
Posted Nov 07, 2009 @ 08:49 PM
PEKIN — President Richard M. Nixon traveled to Pekin to unveil the cornerstone for the Dirksen Congressional Leadership Center in 1973.
President Gerald R. Ford dedicated the Dirksen Center in 1975.
Everett Dirksen's tenure, first, in the House of Representatives and, later, in the Senate spanned presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt to Nixon, issues from the New Deal to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Great Society. The Pekin Republican was Senate minority leader for 10 years.
But the "single most studied aspect" of his career is his role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, says Frank Mackaman, director of the Dirksen Center.
The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will honor Dirksen for that role Saturday at its annual banquet at the Par-A-Dice Hotel in East Peoria. Mackaman and Pekin Mayor Rusty Dunn will be among the speakers during the program.
A confluence of anniversaries and events make the NAACP's recognition especially timely, Mackaman says. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Dirksen's death, the 45th anniversary of the civil rights legislation and the 100th anniversary of the NAACP. The anniversaries come together in what Mackaman calls "one of the most fascinating letters in our collection" - a thank-you note to Dirksen from Roy Wilkins, longtime leader of the national NAACP.
Mackaman has written a book, "The Long, Hard Furrow," documenting Dirksen's part in bipartisan legislative battles to pass civil rights bills.
Despite massive sit-ins, demonstrations and police-sanctioned violence taking place during debates over the civil rights bill, Mackaman says it was easier for pragmatic legislators like Dirksen to work across party lines in 1964.
"He was not an ideologue. If you took Dirksen and plopped him down today, he would have never been the leader," Mackaman says. "I'm not even sure he could be elected. I can't imagine Everett Dirksen in the Rush Limbaugh era."
Getting the bill passed
Others wrote letters thanking Dirksen, including Senate Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey and the Rev. Martin Luther King. Wilkins wrote first and most.
Wilkins' two-page letter is dated June 12, 1964, just two days after Dirksen, the Senate's Republican minority leader, delivered Republican votes essential to ending a blocking tactic led by Southern Democrats who, until that point, had succeeded in sentencing decades of civil rights legislation to death-by-filibuster.
The Pekin Republican convinced 26 of his fellow Republican senators to vote to cut off a four-month-long filibuster in which all Senate work had come to a standstill. In a show of bipartisan gamesmanship, Dirksen brought along enough votes to help President Lyndon Johnson and Senate Democrats derail filibustering Southern Democrats from their own party, which paved the way for passage of landmark civil rights legislation.
In the final count, 71 senators voted to end the filibuster, including 27 Republicans. Only six Republicans sided with the 23 Democrats (20 of them from the South) who wanted to keep on fighting the civil rights bill.
Dirksen landed on the cover of Time magazine. President Johnson called him "the hero of the nation." The Chicago Defender, the nation's largest black-owned daily newspaper, praised him for his "generalship" behind passing the best civil rights measure since Reconstruction.
"I think a lot of people just think of Everett Dirksen as a racist conservative from Pekin," says Ernestine Jackson, one of the organizers of the NAACP banquet. "And he was a very conservative guy ... but people have to understand civil rights laws didn't just happen because of black folks, civil rights laws happened because a lot of different folks came together."
Wilkins' letter makes clear he distrusted Dirksen's motives initially. Like many, he suspected Dirksen's real intent was to gut the civil rights bill of real meaning. Dirksen did succeed in watering down some aspects. While historians debate whether his motives were ideological or pragmatic, Wilkins comes down on the side of the pragmatists, saying Dirksen had to deal with reality and compromise to persuade other senators in joining him to end the filibuster.
"The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sends its thanks to you for your vote for cloture," Wilkins wrote, referring to the Senate procedure for ending a filibuster.
He also thanked Dirksen for noting, in a speech before the vote, the military service of black citizens throughout the country's history. "These have, indeed, fought and died to preserve or to advance democracy abroad. They have waited too patiently and been humiliated too long in their own country. As you so well noted, the time of an idea has come."
Dirksen gave the final speech before the Senate voted to end the filibuster. He acknowledged many had accused him of doing a disservice to his own party. His words also showed a clear grasp of history, including black history, that echoes through today's battles in Congress and the future of the Republican Party.
"The Whig Party temporized, compromised upon the freedom for the Negro. That party disappeared. It deserved to disappear," he said. "Shall the Republican Party receive or deserve any better fate if it compromises upon the issue of freedom for all men?"
Dirksen's sense of the historical roots of black Americans' struggle for equality, as well as white resistance to it, was not something he had just learned. As he said in the same speech, "I am no Johnny-come-lately in this field."
Leaving a legacy
When Mackaman looks at Dirksen's entire career, he can only conclude Dirksen's motives regarding passing civil rights bills were sincere.
In 1933, during his first term in the House of Representatives, he introduced a bill to prohibit the use of convict labor in Washington, D.C.
"On the face of it, it doesn't look like a civil rights bill," Mackaman says. But convict labor laws, a device to obtain free labor, fell disproportionately on black men.
Between 1945 and 1949, Dirksen introduced bills to prohibit employment discrimination and abolish the poll taxes and literacy tests typically used to stop blacks from voting in the South.
None of them passed, none of them got out of committee, Mackaman points out, typically victims of Southern Democrats in the House leadership.
Once he was elected to the Senate in 1950, he didn't offer much in the way of civil rights legislation until 1955. Then he introduced bills to establish a civil rights commission and he continued to oppose literacy tests and poll taxes.
In 1957, he endorsed the United Negro College Fund drive and he helped pass President Dwight Eisenhower's civil rights programs, the first civil rights legislation in decades.
And "in a real curious footnote," Mackaman says, Dirksen helped the National Association of Colored Women get a property tax exemption for their national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The NACW was a collection of black women's clubs throughout the country. (The Peoria chapter started what would become Carver Community Center in the early 1900s.) In 1956, when Dirksen took up their cause, Irene McCoy Gaines, a black Republican from Chicago, was national president of the organization and a constituent of Dirksen's.
But what's most interesting, Mackaman says, is that Dirksen had to work with the District of Columbia's elected officials, the House and the Senate. D.C. officials opposed the exemption. "It wasn't easy, it took him two years, but he gets it done," Mackaman says.
During this same period in the 1950s, he repeatedly sponsored legislation to start National Negro History Week, "which never passed," Mackaman adds.
Dirksen did not champion every civil rights measure that came down the pike. For instance, he was instrumental in blocking an open housing law in 1966 because he thought it interfered with homeowners' rights.
But he did succeed in outmaneuvering many of the same Southern Democrats who had repeatedly dismissed his earlier civil rights bills when he helped Democrats pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Pam Adams can be reached at (309) 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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