Mitch McConnell is Wrong. The Filibuster is, in Fact, RacistRoundup
tags: racism, civil rights, filibuster, African American history, Senate
In a recent news conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made a startling observation that quickly went viral. The Senate filibuster, he remarked, "has no racial history at all. None. There's no dispute among historians about that."
As a historian, I can tell you that this could not be further from the truth. Even a brief examination of U.S. history reveals that it is impossible to separate the filibuster from the history of racism and white supremacy. Then, as now, filibusters were often used to block measures to expand Black rights and political participation.
In 1841, during a debate over the formation of a national bank, Sen. Henry Clay proposed a rule to "limit debate." The idea immediately sparked resistance, some of it from John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina and renowned supporter of slavery.
On the surface, the resistance stemmed from the belief that debates on the Senate floor should never be limited. It was framed as a matter of principle — the right to express oneself for as long as one desired to attempt to delay proceedings and even prevent the passage of legislation. A closer examination, however, reveals that Calhoun and others orchestrated the 1841 filibuster to protect the interests of Southern planters and, by extension, the institution of slavery.
Calhoun, recognized as one of the architects of the modern filibuster, was deeply invested in upholding slavery and protecting the interests of slaveholders. And what he recognized during the 1840s was that he could effectively use the filibuster to obstruct efforts in the Senate that might undermine the South's vested interest in slavery.
Other senators quickly followed suit. Of the 40 filibusters that took place in the Senate from 1837 to 1917 (when the cloture rule was established), at least 10 directly addressed racial issues. The use of filibusters to block Black political rights significantly expanded during the 20th century, as civil rights activists across the country fought to introduce legislation to empower Black Americans and white senators turned to the filibuster as one method to block their efforts. This continued through a series of coordinated filibusters from the post-World War I era to the advent of the modern civil rights movement.
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