By Robert Mann
Shortly after noon on Monday, March 30, 1964, U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) stood at his polished mahogany desk in the Senate chamber and launched what would be an 83-day debate over the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Senate’s Democratic whip, Humphrey was also the floor manager for the historic bill, legislation he had dreamed about and promoted since the day he arrived in the Senate in 1948.
It was Humphrey who, at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, had forced a strong civil rights plank onto the party’s platform. “My friends,” the then-mayor of Minneapolis told delegates in Philadelphia, “to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
Perhaps because he had waited so long to see the day when this long-awaited bill would be debated in the Senate — where southern filibusters had killed so many civil rights measures — Humphrey had much to say about civil rights. He cared deeply about passing a comprehensive law that would guarantee black people the rights he had long believed were promised in the Constitution but were denied by many local and state officials, especially in the segregated South. He would speak that day for three-and-a-half hours.
“If freedom becomes a full reality in America,” Humphrey told the half-dozen colleagues present for the Senate debate that afternoon, “we can dare to believe that it will become a reality everywhere. If freedom fails here in America, the land of the free — what hope can we have for it surviving elsewhere?”
Humphrey was particularly enthusiastic about the bill’s public accommodations section, a portion of the bill that would allow black citizens equal access to business, like restaurants, movie theaters and hotels. Quoting from two travel guides, he noted the many motels and hotels throughout the South that allowed dogs into rooms but prohibited African Americans. “In Charleston, South Carolina,” he said with disgust, “there are 10 places where a dog can stay, and none for a Negro.”
Few people knew it at the time, and perhaps fewer still know it today, but Humphrey’s views about human rights and economic justice had been largely shaped by a memorable year he spent in Baton Rouge, studying at Louisiana State University, beginning in the fall of 1939. “His year in Baton Rouge put a face on segregation and discrimination that Humphrey never forgot,” John Stewart, Humphrey’s trusted Senate aide for civil rights, said recently.
The future senator and vice president had grown up in South Dakota with a strong sense of social justice — values instilled in him by his irrepressible father, Hubert “H.H.” Humphrey, Sr., a loyal Democrat, small-town druggist and part-time politician.
While the lessons his father taught him were profound, it was the younger Humphrey’s year in Louisiana, that made the difference in his outlook and approach to his civil rights advocacy.
Humphrey had graduated with a political science degree from the University of Minnesota earlier that year and — with thoughts of become a college professor — immediately began thinking about where to earn a master’s degree and, eventually, a PhD. He settled on earning his master’s at LSU upon the recommendation of a former professor who knew the school’s political science department chair, Charles Hyneman.
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