June 17, 2014

1964 Civil Rights Act at Fifty: Senator Lee Metcalf and the Fight for Equality

By Matthew M. Peek, Montana Historical Society Photograph Archivist
"Man’s inhumanity to man cuts across all nations and races. I would like to see us eradicate not only racial injustice but the injustices that breed racial injustice."          ~Lee Metcalf
June 19, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s passage of the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in employment practices, public places and accommodations, and hastened desegregation of public schools. The U.S. Senate received civil rights bill H.R. 7152 from the House of Representatives on February 26, 1964. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield placed it directly on the Senate calendar, rather than refer it to a committee chaired by a civil rights opponent. The bill’s opposition leader, Sen. Richard B. Russell (D-GA), objected to Mansfield’s action; however, his objection was overruled by the Senate’s presiding officer, Sen. Lee Metcalf of Montana. Metcalf’s ruling ensured that the bill remained live. 
 Senator Lee Metcalf at his Senate office desk in Washington, D.C.
[circa July 1964] (Lot 31 B1/7.04)
A 53-year old junior U.S. Senator from Montana, Lee Metcalf had been selected in June 1963 by Mansfield to replace Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona as Acting President Pro Tempore. Metcalf carried an air of authority, with a booming voice and presence to match, which few senators could ignore. In a February 15, 1964, letter, he stated: “I do not hold myself out to be an expert on the Civil Rights Bill. I am going to participate in the debate, listen carefully and try to analyze and read the material that is presented. . . . I do know that if I were a Negro and treated as I can see Negroes are treated here in Washington, D.C., I would be protesting, I would be marching, and I would be sitting in, too.” To support their efforts, he presided over all important Senate votes and floor debate related to this legislation.

In 1964, Montana was mixed on its views of the pending civil rights legislation. With a population of only 1,467 African Americans in Montana at the time, many Montanans believed it would address only the racial issues inherent to a “Southern” problem. Metcalf, however, reminded the public that the bill’s measures would apply to anyone facing racial discrimination, including Montana’s 21,181 Native Americans.     

On June 10, 1964, after 75 days of filibustering by anti-civil rights senators, Mansfield forced a cloture vote to end the debate. Despite Southern senators’ efforts to reject a cloture vote, Metcalf overruled them using Senate parliamentary rules few legislators knew existed. The Senate voted 71-29 in favor of cloture, the first time it ever invoked cloture on a civil rights bill.

Rep. Lee Metcalf meets with Senate Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate, August 1960.
Pictured (left to right):  Democratic presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy; Senator Henry M. Jackson, National Democratic Party Chairman; Metcalf; Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson; and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (Lot 31 B16/1.01)
The bill was approved by the Senate on June 19, 1964. Montana’s junior senator had successfully controlled the longest debate in the U.S. Senate’s history. After the vote, an unidentified anti-civil rights senator told a news reporter that Lee Metcalf “was the Civil Rights Bill’s secret weapon.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964—officially Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241) — was signed into law on July 2, 1964, by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Without the dedication and character of a Montana U.S. Senator, the Civil Rights Act may not have passed in the form we know it today.
If you would like to learn more about Senator Metcalf’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you can find the Lee Metcalf Papers (MC 172) and the Lee Metcalf Photograph Collection (Lot 31) at the Montana Historical Society Research Center.