Throughout my life, I have been impacted by the work of Martin Luther King and others as they worked to bring equality to people of my race. It is interesting, however, the way in which people interpret the events that have brought us to this point. Most importantly, as the nation marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there is much about this historic piece of legislation that has been forgotten or deliberately misrepresented. Few contemporary American students may remember that its supposed champion, President Lyndon B. Johnson, left office under the cloud of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War after declining to seek a second term. Fewer still may recall that it was Southern Democrats, including Senators Al Gore, Sr. and Robert Byrd, who filibustered the legislation for 83 days or that Republicans like Ohio Congressman Bill McCulloch played a crucial role in getting the bill passed.
On paper, the Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It applied to voter registration requirements, as well as segregation in schools, workplaces and public facilities. Together with the Voting Rights Act that passed the following year, it was arguably the most important legislation of the twentieth century.
In one sense, the legacy of the Civil Rights Act can hardly be disputed. Since its passage, black political participation has grown astronomically and remains high. In fact, the African-American voter turnout rate was higher than the white turnout rate in the 2012 presidential election. There has also been a steady increase in the number of black elected officials, not to mention a black president elected twice.
But it is also easy to give the legislation too much credit for overall black improvement. For example, as Census data demonstrates (and many black conservatives and moderates point out regularly), black income actually rose faster during the two decades that preceded the Civil Rights Act than in the two decades that followed. Thus much of black progress can simply be attributed to growing economic opportunity and the African American determination to overcome obstacles, including Jim Crow laws.
Ironically, the success of the Civil Rights Act inspired generations of advocates for all sorts of causes, many of which had nothing to do with Jim Crow discrimination. In the decades that followed, everyone from animal rights activists, to environmental extremists and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender advocates would try to further their group’s agenda by framing it as a continuation of the Civil Rights Act.
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.