When Strom Thurmond carried out his record-setting filibuster in 1957, race relations in America were becoming increasingly tense.
Three years before, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that public schools should be desegregated.
And the same year as the filibuster, President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Ark., to guarantee admission of several black children to the high school there.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first such bill since Reconstruction. It basically tried to remove restrictions on registering black voters for federal elections.
By the time Thurmond began his filibuster, the bill already had been heavily watered down, including an amendment supported by Southern senators to guarantee a jury trial for anyone accused of violating the law, said Joseph Crespino, an Emory University historian who is writing a biography of Thurmond.
Despite that, Thurmond went ahead with his 24-hour, 18-minute speech, much to the disgust of fellow Southerners, who worried his grandstanding would lead to more restrictive filibuster rules.
Thurmond risked their anger because he was facing intense political pressures in South Carolina, including demands by the governor there that he engage in a filibuster.
After his speech finished, the first thing reporters wanted to know was how he had been able to keep sipping water, but never use the bathroom.
"His answer at the time was that before the filibuster started, he had gone down to the Senate steam room and dehydrated himself," Mr. Crespino said. "The more plausible story is that Thurmond had been outfitted with a 'device for long car trips' " -- a catheter leading to a bag strapped to his leg.
Today, the historian said, Thurmond is largely remembered as "one of America's great hypocrites," because it was later revealed that he had fathered a daughter with an African-American woman when he was a young man.
But he was more than that, said Mr. Crespino, whose "Strom Thurmond's America" is due to be published in September by Hill & Wang.
Thurmond was also a staunch anti-Communist and anti-labor union politician and became the first of the Sunbelt conservatives to switch to the Republican Party. He had run for president on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, a third party effort formed after the Democratic Convention adopted a civil rights plank.
In the end, his 1957 filibuster did nothing to alter the compromise legislation, which passed, but "it sealed his image as the South's last Confederate."
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130.