*In the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law July 2, 1964 GOP leaders are crowing again that they, not the Democrats, deserve all the credit for breaking the months long stall by then powerful Southern Democratic Senators adamantly opposed to passage of the bill.
There’s some truth to that claim. But there’s also another side to the story that tells much about what many in the GOP would do today if faced with a vote on the same bill.
In 1964, Moreton Rolleston, the owner of a motel in Atlanta, Georgia, was hardly an aberration. He virulently opposed the bill and was widely quoted as to why. He called the bill a blatant infringement of his Constitutional right as a private business owner to serve or refuse to serve anyone he so chose. “the fundamental question…is whether or not Congress has the power to take away the liberty of an individual to run his business as he sees fit in the selection and choice of his customers”. He cited the Fourteenth Amendment, Fifth and Thirteenth Amendments to bolster his case that the bill violated his right to run his business and oversee his property anyway he wanted. The Supreme Court didn’t agree and held that Congress had the right under the Commerce Clause. But that was the Court then. It’s a far different court today.
Fast forward a half century later. And Kentucky Senator and almost certain 2016 GOP presidential contender Rand Paul, in an interview in May, 2010 with the Louisville Courier Journal, blew off the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a slap against private businesses’ right to racially discriminate. He had a second and third chance to eat his words in two separate interviews after his Senate primary win. He blew both. He did the obligatory disavowal of racism, but did not back away from his belief that the Civil Rights Act went way too far in telling private businesses that they couldn’t racially discriminate. Paul later, much later, walked it back and claimed that he’d back the 1964 Act then and now but just had problems with the part about telling business owners what to do.
Paul when he gave his candid view that the Civil Rights Bill vastly over reached, as Rolleston a half century earlier said with businesses, is also no aberration. His view of what government should or should not do about civil rights then and now remain unchanged. And that’s that government should have a minimal role in civil rights laws and enforcement. In recent days, GOP legislators in Arizona, Alabama, and South Dakota have said pretty much the same thing as Rolleston said decades ago in stumping for legislation to ban gays from restaurants and other business establishments. A few of the bolder ones have even said that a business owner might even have the right to refuse blacks under certain circumstance since the rights of a property owner are supposedly inviolate. There’s absolutely no guarantee that the Supreme Court today would not seriously consider that argument in a challenge to the Act. In various rulings on campaign financing and class action lawsuits against corporations the conservative majority have been adamant that the rule of law applies first and foremost to property rights.
The GOP senators and congresspersons that the GOP tirelessly points too to make its dubious case that it, not the Democratic Party, then was the party of civil rights was a totally different political breed then. There was a strong and consistent level of political moderation within GOP circles. Many believed in and practiced bi-partisanship. Despite deep reservations many of them had about parts of the civil rights bill, they were willing to compromise not only to honor the legacy of the slain Democratic President John F. Kennedy who proposed the bill, but saw the legal and moral importance of the Act. They lent a willing ear to the non-stop jaw boning by President Lyndon Johnson who worked the phones and the aisles to break the logjam thrown up by the pack of virulent Southern Democrats and conservative Northern GOP representatives to the bill.
This spirit of compromise is dead as a doornail today in a House where the GOP has made partisan warfare an art. But even if that same spirit was there among many in the GOP, the party would still look hard over its shoulder at its legions of supporters in the South and the Heartland that believe race and racism as a product of a by-gone time and place and that there is no need to pass any laws to uphold rights of minorities. There are legions more GOP backers who do nothing to hide their border line bigotry.
A 2014 Civil Rights Bill would almost certainly be DOA on arrival in the 2014 House. And if by some miracle it passed its chance of surviving a court challenge would be anything but certain with the 2014 Supreme Court.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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