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Mitch McConnell once knew all about the filibuster’s racist history. What changed?

We know from his own writings that McConnell is aware of the filibuster’s ‘racial history’

- March 29, 2021

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the filibuster that it “has no racial history at all. None. There’s no dispute among historians about that.” That comment, tweeted out by NBC News’s Sahil Kapur, had many of those historians scratching their heads. The simple truth is that the filibuster — a Senate rule that allows for extended debate — was the most prominent tool employed to thwart the civil rights of African Americans during the period when McConnell came of age.

We know from McConnell’s own writings that he actually knows this history and has described how “exhilarated” he was when a previous senator from Kentucky opposed the racist use of the filibuster. When historians called out his claims, he clarified that the “filibuster predates the debates over civil rights,” and his spokesperson has said that he was just talking about the origins of the filibuster rather than its later history. So why is McConnell downplaying the filibuster’s racial history?

Everyone knew that the filibuster was used to block civil rights

Historians have documented the racist use of the filibuster. Robert Caro recounts Strom Thurmond’s epic filibuster of 1957, opposing that year’s civil rights bill by speaking on the Senate floor for some 24 hours and 18 minutes. C. Vann Woodward describes in his book “Reunion and Reaction” how the filibuster was used as one of the tools to end Reconstruction and restore White home rule in the South, ushering in the Jim Crow era. Taylor Branch’s three-volume history of “America in the King Years” shows how the filibuster hung in the air as a looming threat against racial progress. Going back further, the NAACP’s Walter White wrote a June 1935 article in Crisis magazine, outlining the use of the filibuster against the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill.

But one needn’t go to leading historians of Congress and civil rights leaders to learn that the Senate has used this form of legislative hijacking (the word filibuster comes from the Dutch word for “freebooting”) to prevent Blacks from voting, being lynched and enjoying the full benefits of citizenship. Everyone knew what was happening at the time.

When the filibuster was being used, the March 21, 1949, issue of Life magazine contained a lengthy article, complete with numerous illustrations from the Senate gallery, on this very topic.

“Filibuster Threatens Truman Program” began with these words: “Every time in recent years that a bill has come up in Congress to outlaw the poll tax or create federal antilynching law or Fair Employment Practices Commission, the South’s representatives have talked it to death. Last week, despite the Democratic platform of 1948 and all of President Truman’s campaign promises, they seemed to be succeeding again.”

Mitch McConnell is wrong. Here’s the filibuster’s ‘racial history.’

Once, McConnell was ‘exhilarated’ at efforts to stop the filibuster

McConnell would have just turned 7 when Life magazine published its article, but he was certainly around for the aftermath. In his 2019 book, “The U.S. Senate and the Commonwealth,” he recounts his time as a 22-year-old interning for Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky. Cooper, who supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was praised by McConnell for opposing a racist filibuster.

“I saw that those who wrote to Senator Cooper were overwhelmingly opposed to the pending civil rights legislation. But Senator Cooper was undeterred,” McConnell writes. “He actively lobbied his colleagues to oppose the Southern Democratic filibuster being carried out against the civil rights legislation. I was exhilarated as I watched him take this courageous stance.” So where did the youthful exhilaration of McConnell disappear to?

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It is crucially important that we remember how the filibuster was used

The answer is that McConnell is likely involved in a broader process of willful historical forgetting. The French historian Ernest Renan once remarked, “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” As the political scientist Benedict Anderson pointed out, Renan claimed that the French nation had “forgotten” historical atrocities (such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants) that every French person knew about. For Renan and Anderson, “forgetting” means trying to close the books by denying that past conflicts are connected to current political struggles.

McConnell has immediate political incentives to minimize any connection between the use of the filibuster against civil rights in the 20th century and its use to block voting rights protections in 2021. Stacey Abrams has described current Republican efforts to restrict voting at the state level as “the largest push to restrict voting rights since Jim Crow.” McConnell is vociferously opposed to the Democrats’ H.R. 1, which would partly counteract these state-level measures, and has threatened “nuclear winter” if Democrats abolish the filibuster to get it passed.

In a large, multiracial republic such as ours, remembering matters. The filibuster’s racist past is undeniable, even if it has been used for other purposes, most famously for crushing President Woodrow Wilson’s hopes to join the League of Nations. McConnell knows this history well. He wrote about it. He witnessed it. He was there.

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Willful ignorance of the dark moments in America’s past leaves us confronting our present challenges in a state of amnesia. There is no dispute among historians about the filibuster’s racist past. However, McConnell appears to have strategically forgotten his own powerful admiration for Cooper, who opposed filibusters intended to hold up racial progress, back when McConnell first learned the rules of the Senate.

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Saladin Ambar is an associate professor of political science and a senior scholar at the Center on the American Governor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. He is the author of “Reconsidering American Political Thought: A New Identity” (Routledge, 2019) and the forthcoming “Stars and Shadows: The Politics of Interracial Friendship from Jefferson to Obama.”