July 2 marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important laws Congress has ever passed … the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill, and with a northern and Democratic majority, the outcome wasn’t really in doubt. The Senate was another matter. While LBJ and the bill’s Senate floor manager, Hubert Humphrey, deserved a lot of credit, so did Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. He delivered northern Republicans needed to get to the total needed for cloture, or closing off debate. Half a century ago, it was sixty-seven, as opposed to the sixty needed today.
Any which way, Johnson, a Democrat, needed some Republican votes in the Senate. But he especially needed them because southern Democrats weren’t on his side. They were determined to filibuster or block the Civil Rights Act. Many of them were powerful committee chairs and had a lot of senatorial friends outside the South. Two of them were Nevada’s Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, who faced difficult choices.
From our perspective, the choices might not have seemed difficult. But while the Senate still runs in part on seniority, back then, personal relationships were more important. Bible and Cannon were close to LBJ, but they also were close to the southerners.
On the surface, Bible might have seemed more likely to go along with the president. They had become close when Johnson was Senate minority leader. He talked Bible into running for reelection after his first term in the Senate, when Bible planned to leave and go back to Nevada. In turn, Bible received some plum committee assignments.
But Bible had been in the Senate for nearly ten years when the Civil Rights Act came up. He had built ties to the southerners, who helped him on that mattered to Nevada. While the South used claims of states rights to fight civil rights legislation, Nevadans used similar claims to keep the federal government from interfering in the gaming industry. Remember that at the time, Nevada was the only state with legal gambling.
Cannon had more reasons to vote for cloture, especially that year. As Las Vegas city attorney, Cannon had told the city that it might be wise not to pass a civil rights ordinance, since he considered the Nevada Constitution unclear on the subject. But now he was up for reelection, and might need African American votes against a tough, popular opponent, then-lieutenant governor Paul Laxalt. Maybe, as lawyers will do, he simply represented his clients, and felt differently as a U.S. senator.
When the cloture vote came, Cannon was one of the last to vote. By the time he did, the Senate had the needed sixty-seven. The final cloture vote was seventy-one to twenty-nine, Cannon for and Bible against. Both of them voted for the final bill, which required a simple majority.
Then the House easily passed it. But Nevada’s lone vote was a no. Walter Baring, the state’s only congressman, was a Democrat, but he had broken with his party over John Kennedy’s New Frontier. He opposed civil rights legislation. And when he ran for reelection that year, in the Democratic primary, his campaign used that opposition to its benefit with voters who felt similarly, and Baring won another term. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was law, and Nevadans had played a variety of parts in it.
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