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Thurmond Holds Senate Record for Filibustering

Fortified with a good rest, a steam bath and a sirloin steak, Sen. Strom Thurmond (search) talked against a 1957 civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes — longer than anyone has ever talked about anything in Congress.

The South Carolina (search) senator, then a Democrat, opened his one-man filibuster on Aug. 28, 1957, at 8:54 p.m. against the bill, which he said was unconstitutional and "cruel and unusual punishment."

Republican leader Sen. William Knowland (search) of California retorted that Thurmond's endless speech was cruel and unusual punishment to his colleagues.

But Thurmond kept on.

Other Southern Democrats detested the bill but held their tongues, clearly outnumbered. Some grumbled that he was grandstanding for folks back home and broke an agreement not to filibuster.

That didn't deter Thurmond, who by then had a reputation for going his own way.

"It never has been a sure thing that Strom Thurmond would go along with any group unless it went his way," The Associated Press reported in coverage of the filibuster.

The senator had not consulted anyone on his staff about his plans, though Nadine Cohodas wrote in her biography of Thurmond that aide Harry Dent "knew something was up when his boss began collecting reading material to take to the floor."

Thurmond also had visited the Senate steam room to get liquids out of his body so that if he drank during the filibuster, he would not have to go to the bathroom.

The senator, armed with throat lozenges and malted milk tablets, recited the voting rights laws of every state to show adequate protection existed. He also recited the Declaration of Independence and launched into a history of Anglo-Saxon juries to counter the bill's proposal to allow judges to punish cases of civil contempt without a jury trial.

"Thurmond's effort was a lesson in voice conservation," the AP reported. "At times he spoke so quietly that he appeared to be mumbling to himself. At other times his voice rang loud and clear across the Senate floor."

Though most Southerners did not help him, Northern senators at times asked Thurmond questions so he could rest his voice. Some minor infractions of Senate rules also were overlooked so he could keep the floor. He was allowed to sit while others made short remarks. During one interruption, Thurmond even gobbled a sandwich in the cloakroom.

Thurmond hoped that once word got out about his filibuster, Southerners would rally and urge their own senators on, Cohodas wrote. But the marathon talk swayed no votes and Thurmond wound down and "finished strong," the AP reported.

"With a slow-motion but sweeping gesture of the arm, he denounced 'those nine men' on the Supreme Court for their decision outlawing school segregation," the report said. '"If I had the time,' he told the Senate and got a roar of laughter, 'I'd tell you all the decisions handed down by this Supreme Court.'"

He left the chamber at 9:12 p.m. Aug. 29. Dent waited in the cloakroom with a pail in case Thurmond was in dire need of a toilet, Cohodas wrote.

The bill passed less than two hours later, 62-15. But Thurmond succeeded in shattering the previous record set by Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., in 1953 of 22 hours and 26 minutes.