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posted: 6/29/2014 5:01 AM

Editorial: Honoring Dirksen's courage on Civil Rights Act

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  • Leaders of the March on Washington stand with Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, center right, during a visit to the Capitol on Aug. 28, 1963. From left are Whitney Young, National Urban League; Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins, NAACP, behind King; Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers president; Dirksen and John Lewis, Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. (AP Photo)

      Leaders of the March on Washington stand with Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, center right, during a visit to the Capitol on Aug. 28, 1963. From left are Whitney Young, National Urban League; Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins, NAACP, behind King; Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers president; Dirksen and John Lewis, Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. (AP Photo)

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Everett McKinley Dirksen of Pekin was renowned for his gravelly-throated oratory during the 36 years he served in Washington.

Perhaps none of his words touched the nation as much as these, as described by historian Stan Mendenhall in the article, "Everett Dirksen and the 1964 Civil Rights Act":

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"I trust the time will never come in my political career when the waters of partisanship will flow so swift and so deep as to obscure my estimate of the national interest ... I trust I can disenthrall myself from all bias, from all prejudice, from all irrelevances, from all immaterial matters and see clearly and cleanly what the issue is and then render an independent judgment."

It's ironic to look back at those words, given the brutal partisanship that grips today's Washington to block meaningful action on behalf of the nation.

In calling for an end to a record 83-day filibuster that had been blocking a vote on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader, told his colleagues, "It is said that on the night he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary substantially this sentiment: 'Stronger than all armies is an idea whose time has come.' The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied."

In the end, Dirksen delivered enough Republican votes to overcome opposition not only from GOP conservatives but also from a substantial bloc of southern Democrats from President Lyndon Johnson's own party.

It is difficult for most of today's Americans to fathom, but retirees can remember a time when the country was divided harshly into white and black with prejudices not only deep but also aggressively spoken and acted upon.

Today's older generation grew up in a time when segregation was rampant, racial bigotry was open and unapologetic, and discrimination was legal.

Don't get us wrong. The problems of racism and prejudice still exist in America and are unlikely to be eradicated soon. An economic divide, in particular, still runs deep.

But the country is so much further along in its evolution to social justice that inhabitants of the '50s would barely recognize the world we live in today.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 accomplished all of that, and on Wednesday we all should celebrate the 50th anniversary of that legislation being signed into law.

But in doing so, we also should reflect with gratitude on the singularly important contribution of Everett Dirksen, a courageous native son and statesman who dramatically altered life in America for good.

"I am involved in mankind," Dirksen said, "and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind."

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