President Obama and the media critics are wrong to say the Court’s January ruling struck down the 1907 Tillman Act that bans corporate contributions to federal campaigns. It didn’t. It merely held unconstitutional portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law which freed the Post, the Times, Dan Rather, Chris Matthews, and Rachel Madow while putting a gag on tax-exempt groups like Family Research Council and, on the left, the Sierra Club. The Court ruled that corporations do not surrender their First Amendment rights to speak about public issues during an election campaign.
Justice Clarence Thomas skipped the State of the Union gong show. He refuses to take part in a ceremony that has become increasingly theatrical.
But Justice Thomas wonders why the left is so solicitous of the Tillman Act. He knows something about the background of that law. The Tillman Act was named for its chief sponsor, Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the arch-segregationist Democrat.
Sen. Tillman, says Justice Thomas, wanted to attack corporations because he saw them as backing the Republican Party, the leading defender of black civil rights. Tillman responded in a 1900 debate on the Senate floor to Republican criticism of his segregationist stance:
I want to call the Senator’s attention to one fact. He said that the Republican party gave the Negroes the ballot in order to protect themselves against the indignities and wrongs that were attempted to be heaped upon them by the enactment of the black code.
We did not disfranchise the Negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.
Once again, the Supreme Court did not strike down the Tillman Act. It struck down major portions of McCain-Feingold. But isn’t it odd to find all the right thinkers (and left doers) of today defending “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman’s legacy?