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Friday, May 21, 2010  

The Choice and the Echo

The dustup over Rand Paul's radical views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the response to it on the right, has re-opened a historical and political can of worms that never manages to stay closed for long. "I know you are, but what am I," says the National Republican Senatorial Committee, reminding the country, nose protruding further by the moment, that "the same party seeking to manufacture this issue today, is in fact the same political party which led the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act in 1964." In fact, 46 Democrats in the Senate, or 69% of the caucus, voted for the bill. It's true that a still-more-impressive 82% of the Republican caucus voted for the bill too, but that only goes to show how strong the consensus in favor of civil rights was outside of the South. If today's Republican party would like to be identified with Jacob Javits and Everrett Dirksen rather than Barry Goldwater, I would be thrilled.

It's an idle desire, however, as today's Republican Party is far more the party of Goldwater than it was even in 1964. And Goldwater's record on this issue was very, very bad. Conservatives hasten to point out that it was nothing personal, but there are limits--strict limits--to the scope of that kind of argument. Here's the assessment of Lee Edwards, writing for Heritage (emphasis original):

[William F.] Buckley and the magazine did not acquit themselves as well on the issue of civil rights taking a rigid states’ rights position that equaled, in the eyes of many liberals and almost all black Americans, a stand in favor of segregation and therefore racism. In his articles and editorials, Buckley clearly rejected the politics of Southern racists like Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama, but he also argued that the federal enforcement of integration was worse than the temporary continuation of segregation. Consistent with the conservative principle of federalism, he favored voluntary gradual change by the states.

But Mississippi was burning, and freedom riders were being murdered. “You are either for civil rights or against them,” declared blacks who did not see a dime’s worth of difference between Wallace and Buckley. As a result of National Review’s above-the-fray philosophizing and Barry Goldwater’s vote, on constitutional grounds, against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the albatross of racism was hung around the neck of American conservatism and remained there for decades and even to the present.

This gets to at least part of the way to the heart of the issue. Edwards, as a historian, is trying to say something meaningful with the exculpatory phrasing--"temporary continuation of segregation," "on constitutional grounds"--and I suppose these words aren't totally meaningless. But the passive voice at the end--"the albatross of racism was hung around the neck"--is in no way warranted. Goldwater, Buckley and the rest had no one to blame but themselves for the characterization of their racial views. The motivations of the individuals concerned is of interest only to white people who are interested in their own sanctity. Whether we were indulging in the fantasy that segregation could be tolerated on a temporary basis, during which time black Americans would become worthy of equality, or in the hope that quiescent southern blacks would let enlightened, moderate whites govern during an orderly transition to social equality, or that we'd love to help but that pesky constitution just won't allow equality, or even in the fanciful Randian notion that black folks should just pop around the corner to an un-segregated movie house or diner or hotel as the market works its magic--whatever people were telling themselves that rationalized our inaction on the urgent issue of racial equality was a damnable lie and a delusion.

Speaking of Buckley, Michael Miner recently wrote in the Reader,

It was a reasonable and popular position, unacceptable only to those who managed to see jim crow not as some sort of inconvenience southern blacks were obliged to put up with a while longer but rather as a constitutional travesty, a reign of terror, and a national sin.

Liberal icon Adlai Stevenson doesn't fare any better, in Miner's estimation:

Those who thought along the lines of Buckley and Stevenson dominated every walk of American life, from government to the church to the press to the hallowed halls of commerce and academia. They would have recoiled from the pejorative description of "white supremacist," yet if one race had to preside over the others, and it was their own, what were they supposed to do?

That's the important thing. Motivations are of interest to people who wish to hive off the crimes of history and enjoy our privilege with a clean conscience. But whether you took your particular stand on constitutional principle, irenic gradualism, or paternalistic concern is of no actual importance to people suffering from the economic devastation, social humiliation, and political perversion of Jim Crow. Insofar as anyone defended, protected, extended, or rationalized white supremacy, there is no other way to describe them but as white supremacists. If three guys are beating the crap out of you in the alley, does it matter to you that only one is doing it because he actually hates you, while another is acting on abstract principle and the third just thinks you're not quite ready to go around without having your ass kicked?

The country underwent a radical, if limited, transformation in its consciousness of race in the decade between Brown v. Board and the 1964 Act. I don't know if anyone could have guessed in 1954 that Lyndon Johnson would be governing far to the left of Adlai Stevenson on race, but so it came to pass. The support of moderate and liberal northern Republicans was critical to this effort. And it was precisely this convergence--on civil rights, but not only that--that prompted Barry Goldwater to coin the slogan "A Choice, not an Echo." Goldwater offered us a choice, that's for sure. He offered us the possibility of stopping civil rights dead in its tracks. He may not have been personally bigoted--nobody truly knows and no one has any business caring--but he certainly appealed to bigots.* So it was a choice. Thank God we didn't take it.

Most people seem to think this issue is settled, but it never truly is. Barry Goldwater, either neutered in his actual views or having them excused on the spurious grounds mentioned, is still a major icon of the conservative movement. And now we are re-litigating this question, and a small but vocal libertarian contingent has gotten back to the idea that not having access to restaurants, hotels, service stations, housing, banks, mortgages, and bus lines throughout vast stretches of the country was an unfortunate inconvenience of our constitutional order rather than strong evidence of its fundamental violation. This is not bigotry, but it's at least historical amnesia. Now as it was back then, we're obligated to have an opinion.

* Seriously, read the link. It's Jackie Robinson's heartbreaking account of his stint as an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller's presidential campaign:

[Goldwater's nomination] was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present. Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “niggers”. They had no real standing in the convention, no clout. They were unimportant and ignored. One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it. Another one, from the Alabama delegation where I was standing at the time of the Rockefeller speech, turned on me menacingly while I was shouting “C’mon Rocky” as the governor stood his ground. He started up in his seat as if to come after me. His wife grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:33 PM
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