President Biden came out Thursday against the Senate filibuster as a “relic of the Jim Crow period.” It is now a virtual mantra on Capitol Hill that the filibuster is synonymous with racism and anyone supporting it is presumptively racist. That point was noted by MSNBC host Al Sharpton, who threatened to denounce senators as racists if they support the rule. The only thing more impressive than this historical revisionism is the political revisionism underlying this new campaign.
The filibuster is historically more a “relic” of the Julius Caesar era than the Jim Crow era. In ancient Rome, the filibuster was used to force the senate to hear dissenting voices, including Cato the Younger’s opposition to Julius Caesar’s return to Rome in 60 B.C. The foundation for the filibuster here can be traced to an argument of former Vice President Aaron Burr that led to an 1806 rule change. Throughout our history, senators in the minority used different versions of the rule to block or force compromises on controversial legislation, ranging from war measures to oil regulations. It was not created during or for the Jim Crow period.
However, Biden is correct that some of the most abusive uses of the filibuster came from segregationists during the Civil Rights period, as embodied by Senator Strom Thurmond, then a South Carolina Democrat, who set the record by filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes. The filibuster was designed as a protection for the minority in what is often called “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” It is not inherently racist. If that were the case, majoritarian voting rules would be racist since all of our racist legislation was passed by majority vote, including bills that supported slavery or targeted Blacks, Chinese, Native Americans, and other groups.