WASHINGTON — In July 1937, as Congress prepared to adjourn and leave the nation’s capital during the most sweltering weeks of summer, a pro-civil-rights senator turned to an arcane procedural maneuver in an attempt to force his chamber to take up an anti-lynching bill.
He launched a filibuster.
It worked. To end the lengthy, last-minute debate, the Senate leader agreed to bring the legislation to the floor upon the lawmakers’ return.
But the bill ultimately would meet its demise early the next year through the same means: a filibuster, this time by civil rights opponents, that spanned some six weeks. This one included late-night sessions, two failed votes to end debate, and a lawmaker who spoke for four days straight. The death of the legislation was a blow to the years-long struggle by Black activists to end one of the many violent tactics — in this case, murder by hanging — that white Southerners used to terrorize Black people and keep them from the ballot box.
This grim turn of events, historians and political scientists say, is essential in understanding the role of the filibuster in the struggle for civil rights. Dating to the 1800s, it has been used by lawmakers to both advance and thwart Black racial progress — but it is in the thwarting of that progress that it has been used with greatest frequency and success.
“We think about the filibuster just as a way of saying ‘no,’ but it also is a way to force issues onto the Senate floor by holding legislation hostage,” said Gregory Koger, chair of political science at the University of Miami and author of “Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.” “This is still the case today, but the hostage holding has reached the level of everything against everything.”
The push by President Biden and leading Democrats in recent weeks to alter or scrap the filibuster to enact sweeping federal voting rights protections over Republican opposition has reignited fierce debate over the place of this parliamentary tool in a working democracy. It has also once more shined a light on the filibuster’s sordid legacy.
The origins of the Senate rule, which emerged by some accounts from an administrative mistake, are difficult to trace and were not inherently racist. But that is what it became: Both Republicans and Southern Democrats, from the post-Civil War era through the civil rights movement, have wielded the filibuster to curb the rights of Black voters.
It is a past that scholars say reverberates in the present.
Biden invoked that history in Atlanta last week. Speaking in a city he described as “the cradle of civil rights,” he said Republicans have “weaponized and abused” the filibuster.
“The filibuster has been used to generate compromise in the past and promote some bipartisanship. But it’s also been used to obstruct — including and especially obstruct civil rights and voting rights,” Biden said.
Former president Barack Obama, who first called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” at the 2020 funeral for civil rights icon John Lewis, argued for ending it outright in a Wednesday op-ed.
But Republicans have sought to obscure that history as they paint themselves as the real minority — slightly outnumbered in the Senate, and in need of protection.
At the same time, one of two Senate Democrats opposed to changing the filibuster, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, got the history badly wrong when he defended his staunch stance by erroneously claiming the tactic had been the “tradition of the Senate” for 232 years, or since the chamber’s founding.
It has not.
Filibuster comes from the Dutch word for “freebooter” or “pirate,” and came to describe a legislator who hijacks parliamentary proceedings. Its concept — marathon speeches to delay or stop bills from passing — has roots in ancient Rome.
But in the United States, the Senate filibuster came about, seemingly, by way of a mistake. In 1805, at the behest of Vice President Aaron Burr, the Senate deleted a motion from its rulebook known as the “previous question,” which had allowed the chamber to conclude debate on a bill, according to Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and a political science professor at George Washington University.
It is highly unlikely that senators understood the weight of the decision at the time, as they were still experimenting with the body’s rules, Binder told the Globe. The House kept its own “previous question motion” rule and eventually reformed it to empower a simple majority to end debate. When the Senate sought to do the same in the 19th century, lawmakers filibustered reforms to the filibuster, according to Binder’s research.
The era’s most prolific users of the filibuster became pro-slavery senators, led by South Carolina Democrat John. C. Calhoun, who often deployed the tactic to argue against legislation that threatened the interests of white Southern enslavers. In their book, “Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the US Senate,” Binder and Brookings colleague Steven Smith found that 10 of the 40 earliest filibusters that historians can trace — dating from the first one in 1837 — targeted racial issues.
Perhaps the most significant moment for civil rights in those earliest days of the filibuster’s use came in 1890, when Representative Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican from Massachusetts, authored the Federal Elections Bill. It was a mix of measures that among other things would have allowed the federal government to oversee all phases of federal elections, from voter registration to the certification of the results, and was meant to guarantee Black men in the South the ability to vote.
The bill narrowly passed the House but died in the Senate after a weeklong filibuster. Congress would not take up civil rights legislation again for decades.
Some historians credit Calhoun for the filibuster’s racist history. Most, however, believe the legacy truly begins when the Senate eventually managed to update the filibuster in 1917. To get it done, President Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats framed the reform as a national security issue at the outset of World War I.
The effect of the change, however, was to allow even a minority of senators to thwart legislation by refusing to end debate.
Binder and Smith found that filibusters to derail civil rights measures dominated after the change. Between 1917 and 1994, 30 measures favored by the president and majorities in the House and Senate — exactly half of which addressed civil rights — all died in the Senate through use of the filibuster, according to their research.
One of those was the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was filibustered by Southern Democrats several times in the 1920s. It would have established lynching as a federal crime and came as journalist Ida B. Wells and the NAACP exposed the violence of white supremacists and lynch mobs.
As the civil rights movement began gaining momentum in the 1940s, Southern senators filibustered legislation that would have repealed poll taxes, which disproportionately harmed Black voters, and bills targeting racial discrimination in employment practices and housing sales and rentals.
Not all filibusters were successful. The longest continuous one, by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, failed to stop passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which established a federal commission to investigate interference with the right to vote. Thurmond spoke for 24 straight hours, nourishing himself on pumpernickel bread and pieces of hamburger.
Senators also overcame filibusters of their segregationist colleagues in passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. But historians said the filibuster’s impact was not only on the bills it killed, but also on those that passed and were weakened or watered down by the threat of one.
Through the years, opponents of changing the filibuster have cited its supposed role in promoting consensus and bipartisanship by forcing senators to return to the negotiation table.
Most recently, that argument was pushed by Arizona Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who dealt Biden a setback Thursday. She took the floor to reiterate that, although she backed voting rights legislation, she would not approve partisan changes to the filibuster to allow those bills to pass. “I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” she said.
Some political scientists called such arguments disingenuous. “The filibuster has already been changed as a political end, and to act like it hasn’t is willful ignorance and that itself is a political tactic,” said Nadia Brown, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University.
The Senate filibuster rule has never been static. The demise of the so-called talking filibuster, requiring lawmakers to hold the floor and famously portrayed in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” came in the 1950s. The threshold for suspending debate through a cloture motion dropped to 60 votes from 67 in 1975.
Democrats eliminated the filibuster for presidential nominees, aside from Supreme Court justices, in 2013. Republicans followed suit for Supreme Court picks four years later. And just last year, senators passed a one-time filibuster exemption to increase the debt limit.
But the most significant change over time, historians said, has been the loss of restraint in how often senators use it — from seldom to frequently. That restraint started to disappear in the 1970s and ‘80s as Congress entered a more partisan period. But it has been Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell who took the filibuster to a new level when he wielded it to oppose Democrats on all manner of issues, as he tried to make good on his pledge to make Obama a one-term president, historians and political scientists said.
The filibuster “wasn’t regularly deployed, really, until Mitch McConnell assumed control of the Senate [Republicans] in 2007,” said William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago. “It is thereafter, the filibuster becomes a standard feature of the legislative process.”
McConnell, who has denied the filibuster’s racist history, last week noted that Biden had once called it a tool of “‘compromise and moderation.’”
But it was not lost on Representative Joyce Beatty, a Democrat from Ohio and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, that the Republican obstructionism, and the increasing reliance on the filibuster, has come in response to the election of the first Black president in 2008 and an unprecedented number of Black voters who helped Democrats win control of the Senate in 2020. “When we come out and vote, we win,” she said.
Others also see a grim consistency in the filibuster’s use.
“It is true that the filibuster was not inherently racist in its origin,” said Kevin Kruse, a Princeton University history professor. “But it has become a tool for segregationists, white supremacists, and racists because they can use it to their end — to limit who can participate in that full democracy. Maybe the racism of the past is no longer spewed, but even today it is accomplishing the same ends.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a photo caption that misstated Senator Strom Thurmond’s party affiliation. Although he was later a Republican, at the time of his 1957 filibuster he was a Democrat.