There are several problems with these so-called “extensions” of the Civil Rights Act. First, they attempt to elevate all kinds of grievances and desires to the level of the constitutional mandate to provide each American citizen equal protection under the law. This has, among other things, been used to equate sexual behavior to race.
Furthermore, they assume that American business owners have such a strong desire to discriminate against certain groups of people that every aspect of how they conduct business must be regulated by the Federal Government. After all—conventional wisdom tells us—Southern businessmen, left to their own devices, discriminated horribly against blacks.
But this caricature of the post-Civil War South does not tell the whole story. In reality, Jim Crow practices were not primarily cultural traditions of the South; they were laws of southern state and local governments imposed on businessmen. Many white businessmen—whatever their personal attitudes toward blacks—had discovered that money from black customers spent just as well as money from white customers. They had no economic interest in discriminating against their black customers. In fact, streetcar companies in Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama; Augusta and Savanah, Georgia; as well as Jacksonville, Florida initially refused to comply with Jim Crow mandated segregation. Tennessee streetcar companies opposed segregation in the state courts, eventually winning their case.
Thus, for these businessmen, the Civil Rights Act did not strong arm them into integrating; it freed them from the obligation to provide two separate sets of facilities and the mandate to alienate their black customer base. It freed them to do what they had wanted to do, for sound business purposes, from the beginning.
Unfortunately the misunderstanding (or deliberate misrepresentation) of how Jim Crow laws worked has been used to justify terrible encroachments on the freedom of religion and commerce. It has also led to the unfortunate practice of equating ever-increasing government power with “compassion,” and restrained government power with “racism.”
Jim Crow laws were a sad attempt to maintain two separate castes of Americans in the wake of Emancipation. They imposed bizarre obligations on business owners in the name of keeping blacks and whites socially and physically separated. One of the best explanations of their folly remains Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson:
But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution in color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.
Let us celebrate the anniversary of the Civil Rights and preserve its truth without distortion or misappropriation of its intent.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.