If someone offered me twice the assessed value of my home -- in cash, no questions asked -- I’d schedule a moving van. It wouldn’t matter whether the potential buyer was black, red, brown or polka dotted. The only color I’d be interested in would be green.
However, if I’d lived in my home in 1952, the year after it was built, and an African-American potential buyer had offered me twice the assessed value, I would have been forced to turn the offer down. It was the Jim Crow era, and state and local laws made it illegal to sell homes on my street to blacks.
Again -- not only was this discrimination legal, it was mandated by law.
Here’s part of a Virginia law passed in 1912: “The preservation of the public morals, public health and public order, in the cities and towns of this commonwealth is endangered by the residence of white and colored people in close proximity to one another.” Thus localities were empowered to create “segregation districts.” It was, unbelievably, a misdemeanor “for any colored person, not then residing in a district so defined and designated as a white district, to move into and occupy as a residence any building or portion thereof in such white district.”
That, in a nutshell, is why the country needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other federal intervention. Many states had enacted laws that prevented free enterprise. It was up to Washington to restore choice to millions of citizens.
That law is much in the news again these days, thanks to Rand Paul. On MSNBC, the Senate candidate seemed to suggest that parts of it over-reached. Dr. Paul has since clarified. “You would have voted yea. You would have voted yes in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Wolf Blitzer asked on CNN. “Yes,” Paul responded.
But that’s coming at this the wrong way. The question should be, “Given societal sea changes over the last 46 years, what parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act need to be reauthorized today?” Consider another question Blitzer asked Paul. “Did Woolworth -- Woolworth, the department store, have a right, at their lunch counters, to segregate blacks and whites?”
That misses the historical context. Owners were often mandated, by law, to segregate blacks and whites. “All persons licensed to conduct a restaurant, shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room or serve the two races anywhere under the same license,” read a Georgia law. For its part, Birmingham, Ala., passed a “separate accommodations” law as late as 1963.
The better question would be, “Would any business operating today make it a practice to segregate blacks and whites?” It’s possible. But highly unlikely. Businesses don’t make money by turning down customers.
Of course, there could still be discrimination. The owner of a Bed & Breakfast could decline to host homosexual couples, for example. In that case, federal law could theoretically force that owner to cater to gays.
But again, look at that example from the other direction: If you were gay, would you and your partner want to stay with an owner who self-identifies as opposing your lifestyle? You’d probably want to do the exact opposite -- organize a boycott of the anti-gay owner and deny him business.
There are those who look around, even in 2010, and see a deeply bigoted country. For example, moveon.org is collecting signatures on a petition to oppose “whites only” lunch counters. But is any politician or lobbying group pushing to resegregate lunch counters? It’s a petition to oppose a position that simply doesn’t exist.
Instead of seeing the progress we’ve made since the 1960s (that’s in living memory for many Americans) some insist minorities should live in fear that their rights are about to be stripped. But the burden of proof should be on the fear mongers.
Do they really believe Americans are so bigoted that we’re eager to go back to segregated facilities? Nobody could make this case, because there’s no evidence that American voters would stand for resegregation, and overwhelming evidence (based on the people we’ve elected in recent decades and the laws they’ve passed) that we wouldn’t.
Jim Crow laws were a profound injustice, based on the mistakenly decided Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that enshrined “separate but equal” facilities. It required federal intervention to fix that injustice, since it had been triggered by the federal government.
But now that Jim Crow’s flown south, he’s never coming back. News flash for those in the news business: It isn’t 1964.