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Named after a Dutch word for “pirate,” the filibuster has long been a contentious tradition in American politics, specifically within the U.S. Senate. A filibuster is a method used in the United States Senate to delay or block a vote on a measure by preventing debate on it from ending. The Senate’s rules place minimal restrictions on debate.

Typically, if no other senator is speaking, a senator who seeks recognition is entitled to speak for as long as they wish. While supporters argue it protects minority rights and bolsters consensus, decenters challenge its undermining of majority rule and its promotion of gridlock.

The use of the filibuster dates back to ancient Rome. Its modern-day methods emerged in the 20th century, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. Southern senators, committed to preserving white supremacy and the Jim Crow status quo, employed the filibuster to hinder civil rights legislation, which subsequently prevented the passing of civil rights and anti-lynching and voting legislation.

Strom Thurmond

Lasting twenty-four hours, Strom Thurmond’s marathon filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the subsequent opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by a coalition of Southern senators reflect prime examples of how the filibuster has been used to hinder racial progress. Despite the opposition, these critical pieces of legislation were passed, all with significant delays.

The filibuster’s deployment as a tactic to oppose civil rights and maintain white supremacy underscores its ongoing impact on vulnerable and marginalized groups. From the opposition to anti-lynching bills to suppression of voter protections, the filibuster has perpetuated injustice and inequity. Check out this brief video to learn how about Senator Strom Thurmond’s twenty-four-hour filibuster.

The filibuster’s legacy as a subversive tool is undeniable, as it often allows those already in power to oppose changes to the political system that would threaten the racial status quo.

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