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50 Years After Death, Everett Dirksen's Legacy Lives On

Everett McKinley Dirksen's official portrait

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the death of U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Pekin. 

The Pekin Republican was elected to the Senate in 1950 after eight terms in the House, and served as Senate Minority Leader from 1959 to 1969.

His support proved pivotal in rallying Republicans to add their votes to those of anti-segregationist Democrats to pass seminal legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He notably declared that racial integration was "an idea whose time has come" before throwing his support behind ending a filibuster blocking a vote on the bill. 

Dirksen also backed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He was a noted opponent of literacy tests and poll taxes crafted to prevent minority voters from casting a ballot. 

Frank Mackaman is the historian and former executive director of the Dirksen Congressional Center.

“He came from a generation of legislators who understood that the way to accomplish something was to believe that compromise was not selling out, that your adversaries were not your enemies. He looked forward to the give and take of politics," said Mackaman.

Credit Illinois Central College
Frank Mackaman

Dirksen came to power from humble beginnings. Dirksen was born in Beantown, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Pekin, in 1896. His family sold vegetables to make ends meet, and Dirksen peddled milk as a boy. 

Mackaman said many aspects of Dirksen's character can be traced back to his upbringing in Central Illinois, including a hard work ethic, education in Latin and the classics, his Christian faith, and his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, who shaped his own political philosophy. 

Though Dirksen was an ardent conservative, Mackaman said he enjoyed warm personal relationships with his Democratic counterpart, Lyndon Johnson, and later, Mike Mansfield. 

Mackaman says he thinks Dirksen would be “appalled” by the acerbic and bitterly partisan state of politics today. 

A commemoration of Dirksen’s life is planned Saturday in his hometown.  The Tazewell County Republican Party will hold a wreath-laying ceremony at his gravesite at Glendale Memorial Gardens in Pekin at 2:00 p.m. Announced speakers include Pekin Mayor Mark Luft, state Rep. Tim Butler, Tazewell County Board member Russ Crawford, and Pekin City Manager Mark Rothert. 

Credit U.S. Senate Historical Office
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) in 1964.

A reception at the Dirksen Congressional Center is planned from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Mackaman will deliver brief remarks at 3:30 p.m. 

Both events are free and open to the public. 

The Pekin Marigold Festival is also taking place Sept. 5-8. The festival was started in 1973 in honor of Dirksen and his favorite flower.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.