01/07/2011 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We Must Fix the Filibuster

I was born in the nation's capital about sixty years ago. For the first quarter of my life, I lived under legal segregation. There were restaurants where I couldn't eat, hotels where I couldn't sleep, and schools that I could not attend. Racial segregation was the long established law of the land and it was perpetuated, in part, by the Senate filibuster.

For much of the twentieth century, the filibuster was rarely used to block anything other than civil rights legislation, eventually becoming one of the most effective legislative tactics ever used to deny Americans their basic equality. Filibuster reform became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement, which coalesced around the issue as a core mission.

It was Strom Thurmond's use of the tactic -- speaking on the Senate floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an attempt to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1957 -- that made him famous. In preparation, he took cough drops and malted milk tablets to keep his strength and a steam bath to rid his body of excess fluids and avoid the restroom. At the time, senators stayed in the Senate chamber during debate, which required that cots be brought in from a nearby hotel so that they could sleep. He spoke longer than any senator in U.S. history, but failed to persuade any of his colleagues to change their votes. The bill, which established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, went on to become the first piece of civil rights legislation to be passed since Reconstruction.

This wasn't the first time that the filibuster was used in an attempt to derail the rights of minorities. Senator Richard Russell, an architect of the Southern manifesto opposing the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education, also used the filibuster to obstruct federal legislation to criminalize lynching, America's original hate crime. He used it to block anti-lynching legislation that had more than 70 co-sponsors and was first introduced more than a century earlier. Russell's filibuster succeeded in extending the domestic terror campaign that resulted from the brutal public murders of almost 5,000 African Americans and their allies before the anti-lynching bill became law.

While on the wrong side of history, these men were lionized because filibusters were once arduous undertakings requiring steam baths, cots, stamina, and a visceral passion for the issue. That's not the case today.

In the modern Senate, members don't filibuster civil rights legislation with long public speeches. Instead, they put holds on bills in secret, while sipping on cocktails at the Capitol Hill Club or dialing for dollars for their next campaign. Filibustering senators no longer have to hold the floor and debate; they just go home and turn out the lights.

The unprecedented modern abuse of the filibuster rules has killed civil rights legislation with widespread public support, such as the Dream Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, and has provided an insurmountable roadblock to countless judicial and executive branch nominees. Had Thurmond and Russell been able to use today's filibuster rules back then, African Americans still might not have voting rights and lynching might not be a federal crime.

My organization, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was founded in 1950 for the specific purpose of modifying the Senate rule that governed the filibuster. After many years of struggle, advocates for reform ultimately succeeded in to reducing the number of votes needed to invoke cloture (close off debate) from 67 to 60 votes, where it stands today. This historic reform has made numerous civil rights laws possible, but much more needs to be done.

While the Senate should not eliminate the filibuster, it should seriously consider reasonable reforms to it. Several years ago I opposed the so-called "nuclear option" to end the filibuster for judicial nominees proposed by Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) as too strident a change, but adopting appropriate reforms to the filibuster would ensure that the tactic is used as intended -- to spur reasonable debate. What spurred civil rights advocates to mobilize around this issue remains true today: the basic civil rights of all Americans shouldn't be subject to the whims of one person.