Askia MuhammadColumnistsOp-EdOpinion

MUHAMMAD: Busting the Filibuster

The white supremacist, race-haters never intended for the United States of America — a secessionist colony built on land stolen from the Native people and built by African laborers stolen from Africa — they never intended for this country to be a functioning, majority-rule, democracy. Sure, they put some fancy words about equality into the Declaration of Independence, but then they nullified their intent with their Constitution.

Truth be told, the colonies didn’t secede from England just because of some tea tax. The reason they declared independence was to maintain this country’s “Peculiar Institution”: slavery. The Brits were about to outlaw slavery and the colonies were just getting started. The southern, slave states then negotiated a governing document that would maintain their power in perpetuity.

After their loathsome 3/5 compromise — counting the enslaved Africans as 3/5 of a human for census purposes, with no intention of recognizing them ever as equal human beings — they fashioned the totally undemocratic Senate.

Today, the 50 Senate Democrats represent 45 million more people than the 50 Senate Republicans. The Senate is a “co-equal” branch of the legislature, though it is enormously more powerful. House of Representatives members have to be elected to three terms before they serve the equivalent of one Senate term.

On top of all that, they rigged the system so that in order for most decisions to be agreed upon, there must be a supermajority in favor. That anti-democratic gem is called the “filibuster” rule. It means that unless a measure (now) has 60 (of 100) votes, it cannot be put before the body for ratification by the majority.

That means that an even smaller minority of 41 senators, representing even fewer voters, can control/dictate to a 59-member majority. As if those slave-holding founding fathers could see into the future, the filibuster has always been used to block efforts to democratize the nation’s laws, or to provide benefits for the neediest citizens.

The first filibuster permitted any group of senators, no matter how small, to yield speaking privileges to one another forever. But the need for a military buildup before World War I required the first modification of the rule, allowing a supermajority to break the logjam, and Jim Crow 1.0 Filibuster was born. In 1935, Congress tried to pass anti-lynching legislation, but Sen. Richard Russell Jr., a Georgia member, held a six-day filibuster to oppose it.

During the proceedings, Russell said that he was “willing to go as far and make as great a sacrifice to preserve and ensure white supremacy in the social, economic and political life of our state as any man who lives within her borders.” Three years later, Southern senators again blocked an anti-lynching bill with a 30-day filibuster.

Anti-lynching, for crying out loud! Then, in the 1940s Southern senators used the filibuster to prevent debate over the civil rights proposals introduced by President Harry Truman. These early uses of the filibuster set the stage for the obstruction of key civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which even had substantial bipartisan support and included protections of voting rights for Black folks. Thurmond, one lone individual, from one segregated state where Black people could not vote, spoke for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes to prevent the passage of the bill. The version of the act that eventually made it through the Senate was significantly weakened, lacking critical enforcement provisions. This is how they do. This is who they are, the “distinguished” members of “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Perhaps the most high-profile use of the filibuster was against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by a group of Southern senators, with millions of Americans watching the proceedings on live TV. Leading the effort were Sens. Russell, Thurmond, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, and William Fulbright of Arkansas. Russell started the filibuster in March 1964, and it lasted for 54 days!

The filibuster has been a tool to prevent Black people from getting equal anything in this society. Last year, President Barack Obama punctuated his eulogy to the civil rights legend John Lewis by calling the Senate filibuster “another relic of Jim Crow.” Last week, President Joe Biden called Georgia voter suppression legislation, like the filibuster, Jim Crow 2.0. It’s all part of the plan to maintain white supremacy in this country.

The Jim Crow filibuster has had one obvious effect on the country — protecting white supremacy. It forced senators to ignore Civil Rights, the country’s single most contentious issue, instead of fighting. But, it’s a new day today and it must be taken down.

The filibuster must be “busted.”

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Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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