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Posted: 2020-06-27 10:00:00

Nor were anti-lynching measures the only bills to fall victim to the filibuster. For nearly a half century after Wilson’s reforms created the modern filibuster, not a single substantial civil-rights bill became law. Even the “talking” filibuster—the marathon speech made famous in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—is intertwined with racism. The longest filibuster on record, Strom Thurmond’s in 1957, was delivered to protest civil-rights legislation.

In fact, and somewhat ironically, it was precisely because the filibuster was such an effective tool for defending segregation, and because segregationists in turn became the filibuster’s staunchest defenders, that obstruction on other issues was relatively rare. Most senators didn’t want to legitimize Jim Crow’s favorite procedural tactic.

The result was a kind of bargain—or at least a reluctant acceptance—that shaped our democracy for decades. On the one hand, the Senate helped build the America we have today, passing the bulk of the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway System, and plenty of other big, ambitious bills. Yet, during that same time, the former Confederacy was allowed to maintain a system of autocratic, racist, one-party rule. Americans were murdered, unjustly imprisoned, denied the right to vote, and treated by their own country as subhuman—all because of the Senate’s unique and often venerated procedure.

Today, the filibuster continues to hold back progress on civil rights. Because the chamber’s two-senators-per-state structure favors smaller-population rural states, disproportionately white states have disproportionate power in the Senate. Combine this with the current 60-vote threshold for passing legislation, and it’s not hard to see why racial justice is a far more urgent priority for Americans than it is for senators. In fact, just two weeks ago, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul used a parliamentary delaying trick to hold up an anti-lynching bill. The segregationists of a century ago would be proud.

Yet there is a fundamental difference between the obstruction that frustrates leaders in our era and the obstruction that got the better of Henry Cabot Lodge. We don’t need to choose between having a democracy and allowing racist systems to continue. In fact, today, we face the opposite choice: self-government and anti-racism on one hand; autocracy and white nationalism on the other.

Doing away with the Senate filibuster would not, of course, mean the end of systemic racism. But it would make anti-racist policies far easier to pass than they are today, and it would help dismantle both the legacy and machinery of Jim Crow. Debates about long-venerated icons are never simple, and there will always be those who argue that “protecting our heritage” is more important than rising above the worst failings of our past. But with the prospect of change on the horizon, Americans should approach the potential collapse of the filibuster the same way they increasingly view the fall of Davis, Rizzo, Colston, and so many others. Tear it down. It’s time.

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

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