Fifty years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Another view

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to Martin Luther King, on July 2, 1964.

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2014 — This spring the national news networks, including the relatively conservative Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, are celebrating the passage 50 years ago of the momentous Civil Rights Act of 1964. They are remembering the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the progress in civil rights that has been made in the United States since then.

In this narrative, opposition to the Civil Rights Act was entirely racist; it represented regressive, dark forces in American history. Today’s spokesmen of the mainstream conservative movement echo these sentiments, forgetting that during those turbulent years, many of the foremost writers and academics on the right raised serious and probing questions about the revolution that was taking place and where it might lead.

Today, conservative pundits like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and the editorial writers for The Wall Street Journal argue that the radical changes in law, as well as much of the social and cultural transformation that flowed from the 1960s, actually formed a conservative process. While criticizing the implementation of some of the changes as faulty or misdirected, and insisting that interpretations of the law and judicial rulings have gone outside the original intent of Congress and the courts, today’s mainstream conservatives appear not only to accept fully the civil rights revolution of the 1960s; they do so to the point that they have joined the political left in its efforts to canonize the leader of that revolution, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as America’s own secular saint.

It is not at all uncommon to hear Hannity or William Bennett extol King’s “conservative virtues” against the Southern Dixiecrats who opposed him and the Civil Rights bill. Who could rationally opposed King’s crusade for justice and legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations? What they forget is that the triumph of this legislation meant that government would thenceforth begin regulating everything from public accommodations, to education and schools, to equality between the sexes.

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For those who read William F. Buckley Jr. and the National Review back in the 1960s, or absorbed the scholarly arguments printed in Modern Age, or listened to the careful logic of Senators Sam Ervin of North Carolina and Richard Russell of Georgia, the contemporary conservative praise of King and the various subsequent radical constitutional and legal changes are strikingly discordant. Conservative icon Barry Goldwater, a supporter of previous attempts to pass civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, as well as the 24th Amendment outlawing the poll tax, strongly opposed the 1964 bill. For him, “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.”

Today’s mainstream conservative movement does not acknowledge the existence of opposition arguments once put forward by Buckley and Frank Meyer of the National Review, or by the acknowledged “father” of modern conservatism, Russell Kirk. They don’t even acknowledge that such arguments against many of the changes begun in the 1960s were ever part of the conservative message to America. To bring up such things is just not permitted. Indeed, to hear Rush and Hannity, it was those ignorant and racially bigoted “Southern Democrats,” not the socially-conscious Republicans, who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Hence opposition to the Act is equated even by conservatives with opposition to equal rights, voting rights, and prevented blacks from acquiring all the goodies that American whites possessed.

In contemporary American society, to discuss this topic automatically places one outside the pale of currently respectable debate. Why exhume these questions when the “moral judgment of history” (to quote one commentator) has come down so forcefully on one side? Why bring up something that was settled 50 years ago? That battle, even if waged with the best of constitutional and civic motives by the Old Right, was lost and, say today’s conservatives, we must move on and accept all the positive things that have flowed from those events.

But this involves more than adjusting a few battle lines or accepting a few small changes in law. Like what happened to the middle-of-the-road Girondistes during the French Revolution or to the temporizing Whigs of the late 1850s, revolutionary events always have a way of spinning out of control. To quote the late Richard M. Weaver, “ideas have consequences.” Most modern conservatives who make a case for the changes of the 60s seem either oblivious to this process, or accept the revolutionary template.

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Too many contemporary conservatives have drunk of the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. And this is particularly true of their treatment of the dominant figure of the civil rights revolution, Martin Luther King.  King, for many of them, has become a conservative icon. The forget that he was also, especially during the last few years of his life, an economic revolutionary, whose oratory for change encompassed not only changing voting laws and public accommodation statutes, but also a thoroughgoing socialist transformation of the American nation.

As highlighted by Paul Gottfried, John Derbyshire and others, King was no religious conservative as Bill Bennett and others have claimed. Indeed, as the late Washington Times columnist Dr. Samuel Francis pointed out in his introduction (The King Holiday and Its Meaning, St. Louis, 1998) to an address delivered by the late Senator Jesse Helms on the occasion of the debate over the establishment of “King Day,” King’s major economic and social influences were from the radical left and the Communist Party USA. Francis, who had been on the staff of U.S. Senator John East, R-N.C., actually drafted the original essay that Helms entered into the Congressional Record, along with hundreds of pages of documentation. To this day, the charges and information included therein have never been effectively countered, as King biographer David J. Garrow begrudgingly admits.

From a constitutional perspective, there is ample reason to re-examine the legal presuppositions of the civil rights revolution. Such scholars as Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton, University of Delaware law professor Raymond Wolters, and University of Texas law professor Lino Traglia have examined faulty constitutional decisions and the rickety legal framework that ushered in much of the civil rights legislation, as well as many of its consequences. Many lessons can be learned from these writers. Other authors, including Charles Murray, Jared Taylor, and Patrick Buchanan have taken a hard look at the results of the past half-century of disastrous societal planning and changes in such things as education, housing patterns, and the destruction of the nuclear family. In many ways the conclusions delineated in these works confirm the worst predictions made back in the 1960s.

To attempt to approach, much less solve, the seemingly impossible problems facing the United States today, reformers on the right need to retrace their steps and re-read the serious critiques older conservatives made during a very difficult time in our history. Certainly, we cannot go back and re-fight all the very same battles of the 1960s. But that does not mean that the thoughtful arguments and analysis offered then are of no value to us now as the American nation seems spiraling into steep decline.

The nostrums and prescriptions of the Great Society liberal-left mentality and its praxis, and the radical social and cultural transformation we have witnessed for 50 years leave no legitimate alternative for those who desperately wish to halt or reverse the destruction. Modern conservatives offer only a shadow approach that in its essential egalitarian and liberal democratic philosophy mirrors the presuppositions of the neo-Marxist multicultural Left. Such “opposition” is no real opposition at all.

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