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Give Dirksen his due on civil rights reform

As we observe the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us also recall a gallant supporter of civil rights from Illinois – U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen.

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST
(Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (left) met with U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen (second from right) the same day King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963. Pictured (from left) are Whitney Young, National Urban League; King, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins, NAACP; Walter Reuther, UAW; Dirksen, an Illinois Republican; and John Lewis, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The occasion was the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After Dirksen provided crucial votes to end a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the NCAAP's Wilkins wrote to Dirksen, "Your leadership of the Republican party in the Senate at this turning point will become a significant part of the history of this century."

People across the country will pay tribute Monday to the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy of advancing civil rights for blacks through non-violent means.

A federal holiday was established to honor the memory of King, who was killed by an assassin in 1968. 

Because King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, the third Monday of January was selected as the date for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. President Ronald Reagan signed the King holiday bill into law in 1983, and it was first observed in 1986.

In his push to advance the cause of civil rights, King had help.

One of those key supporters was a U.S. senator from Illinois who was also born in January – Jan. 4, 1896, to be precise.

Everett McKinley Dirksen, a Republican, played a crucial role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Dirksen was Senate minority leader at a time when Republicans were outnumbered by Democrats, 67 to 33. But history tells us that, because a southern bloc of 21 Democratic senators had always succeeded in blocking civil rights legislation through the filibuster, the chances for passage depended on Dirksen and his fellow Republicans.

Dirksen burnished his statesman credentials by delivering 27 Republican votes to help kill a 2-month filibuster, 71-29, on June 10, 1964. Days later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was approved.

The executive secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, praised Dirksen’s leadership on the bill, writing that it “will become a significant part of the history of this century.”

Four years later, Dirksen played a key role in the approval of the Open Housing Act of 1968 – the year that King was tragically slain.

Dirksen survived King by only a year. He died in 1969 after surgery for lung cancer.

The Dirksen Congressional Center is based in Pekin, Dirksen’s hometown. It keeps alive the senator’ legacy of working in a bipartisan manner to accomplish important goals.

But Dirksen has been gone for nearly 45 years now. Many younger Illinoisans have no personal recollection of his leadership.

As the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act approaches, let us remember the gallant role played by Sen. Dirksen to get it approved.

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