Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act: Was he right?

The controversy over Rand Paul’s comments about the Civil Rights Act shows a major misunderstanding of freedom and the road to racial equality.

Fresh from his victory in last week’s Kentucky Republican senatorial primary, Rand Paul found himself caught in a whirlwind when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act properly outlawed racial segregation at privately owned lunch counters. Speaking circuitously if not evasively, Mr. Paul finally said:

“[O]ne of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized. But that doesn’t mean we approve of it.”

So although he supports striking down segregationist state Jim Crow laws, he objected to Title II of the Act, outlawing racial discrimination in “public accommodations.” “Had I been around I would have tried to modify that,” he said.

However, after a torrent of media and blogospheric criticism, he changed course, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I would have voted yes…. I think that there was an overriding problem in the South, so big that it did require federal intervention in the sixties.”

Which Rand Paul had it right?

The first one. Had he known and related the full story, he could have avoided the metamorphosis.

I write as a libertarian, something Rand Paul claims not to be. The essence of the libertarian philosophy is that each person owns him- or herself and whatever belongings he or she honestly acquires. Thus individuals are due freedom of association and, logically, non-association. It also follows that the owner of property should be free to set the rules of use, the only constraint being that the owner may not use aggressive force against others.

Admittedly, that leaves room for loathsome peaceful behavior, such as running a whites-only lunch counter. Who imagined that freedom of association couldn’t have its ugly side?

Nevertheless, individuals are either free to do anything peaceful or they are not. If politicians decide, we have arbitrary government. But government is force, and force is moral only in response to force.

Some champions of Title II acknowledge the opponents’ consistency with the libertarian principle but suspect it is motivated by racism. Logically, that is absurd. Even if every racist invoked libertarian grounds for opposing laws mandating desegregation in private establishments, it would not follow that everyone who invokes libertarian grounds is a racist. (Southern racists were hardly libertarians; they supported government-mandated segregation.)

Libertarian opponents of Title II are also accused of being so unmoved by racial bigotry that they are blind to the importance of Title II. But there is no inconsistency in abhorring bigotry and opposing a government-based solution.

A final charge made against Title II opponents – from left and right – is that they are so obsessed with doctrinal purity that they ignore real-world consequences, abominable as those may be. The premise here is, as Maddow put it, “[U]nless it’s illegal … there’s nothing under your worldview to stop the country from re-segregating….”

Why assume that legislation was the only way to stop segregation and today is the only thing preventing resegregation? We can easily imagine scenarios in which private nonviolent action could pressure bigots into changing their racial policies.

But we don’t need to imagine it. We can consult history. Lunch counters throughout the South were integrating years – years! – before the civil rights bill was passed. It happened not out of the goodness of the racists’ hearts – they had to be dragged, metaphorically, kicking and screaming. It was the result of an effective nongovernment social movement.

Starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, lunch counters throughout the South began to be desegregated through direct but peaceful confrontation – sit-ins – staged by courageous students and others who refused to accept humiliating second-class citizenship. Four years before the Civil Rights Act passed, lunch counters in downtown Nashville were integrated within four months of the launch of the Nashville Student Movement’s sit-in campaign.

Students were beaten and jailed, but they won the day, Gandhi-style, by shaming the bigots with their simple request to be served like anyone else. The sit-ins then sparked sympathy boycotts of department stores nationwide. The campaign wasn’t easy, but people seized control of their own lives, shook their communities, and sent shockwaves through the country. State and city governments were far slower to respond.

Why is this inspirational history ignored in the current controversy? I can think of only one reason. So-called progressives at heart are elitists who believe – and want you to believe – that nothing good happens without government.

To acknowledge that young people courageously stood down the bigots long before the patronizing white political elite in Washington scurried to the front of the march would be to confess that government is not the source of all things wonderful. Recall Hillary Clinton’s belittling of the grassroots civil rights movement when she ran against Barack Obama: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964…. It took a president to get it done.”

History says she is wrong. People were realizing the dream directly.

One might reasonably ask if Title II at least did no harm since it only codified what was already happening. The case can be made that it was harmful. The effort to pass the Act diverted the grassroots movement from self-help, mutual aid, and independent community action to lobbying, legislation, and litigation – that is, dependence on the white ruling elite. Direct efforts undertaken by free individuals were demoted to at best a supporting role.

That was a loss for freedom, justice, and independence. Our country is the worse for it.

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman. He lives near Little Rock, Arkansas.

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