When “Freedom” is a Fig Leaf
A new book on the politics of the segregationist movement examines a tension between libertarianism and civil rights that continues today.
by Jordan Michael Smith
Jason Morgan Ward
Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement & the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965
The University of North Carolina Press, $34.95
In May 2010, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, then running for a U.S. Senate seat, was interviewed on National Public Radio’s program “All Things Considered” about his opinion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That bill, of course, outlawed discrimination on the basis of race in public and private establishments throughout the country. Paul said he was “opposed to institutional racism,” supported a lot of the Act’s provisions, and would have marched with Martin Luther King—but believed “a lot of things could be handled locally.”
Paul’s comments caused controversy, and he clarified his remarks on the Rachel Maddow Show. Paul again said he supported the Civil Rights Act’s treatment of public institutions, but refused to endorse the parts of the bill that enforced private desegregation. He would have tried to “modify” that part of the Act, he said, but as for the question of the Federal government enforcing the desegregation of Woolworth’s, “the thing is if we want to harbor in on private businesses and their policies, then you have to have the discussion about: do you want to abridge the First Amendment as well.” Paul continued:
Well, what it gets into is, is that then if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant, even though the owner of the restaurant says, well, no, we don’t want to have guns in here. The bar says we don’t want to have guns in here, because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other. Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?
Paul’s comments caused him further trouble, and it was revealed that he had discussed the same problem with a Louisville newspaper a month earlier. He abhorred racism, he told the Courier-Journal, but “I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners . . . I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But at the same time I do believe in private ownership.” He added that “the hard part, and this is the hard part about believing in freedom is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example, you to, for example—most good defenders will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things . . . It’s the same way with other behaviors. In a free society we will tolerate boorish people who have abhorrent behavior, but if we’re civilized people we publicly criticize that and don’t belong to those groups or associate with those people.”
Realizing that what he said was not politically popular in 2010, Paul released a statement saying he supported the Civil Rights Act in its entirety. “As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on Constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years.”
Paul’s statement basically settled the conversation as a political issue, and he went on to win his coveted Senate seat. But the broader philosophical problem he raised—albeit unwittingly—was never resolved. If true libertarianism opposes federal coercion in all its forms, then Paul’s ideas require him to oppose the sections of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting forms of private discrimination. He was only being logically consistent.
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Jason Morgan Ward’s new book Defending White Democracy shows the limits of this. An historian at Mississippi State University, Ward reveals that movement to defend segregation was in force long before the years we think of as the Civil Rights era, which roughly began with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Ward reveals that the movement engendered not just a backlash against massively enforced federal legislation, but also a powerful undertaking to uphold the “white democracy” of the South in anticipation of civil rights efforts.
Recent scholarship has explored the long history of resistance to African-American equality. Joseph E. Lowndes’s book From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism (2008) showed how business-friendly opponents of the New Deal and white supremacists formed a regional coalition against black political enfranchisement. Defending White Democracy goes much further, showing how deeply entrenched this opposition was. “Drawing on a mythology of Yankee persecution, Jim Crow’s defenders invoked the resilient image of the embattled and long-suffering South,” Ward writes. “In the process, they obscured their years of struggling and strategizing in an attempt to recast their movement as a spontaneous, even instinctive, racial uprising.”
Franklin Roosevelt was always deeply popular in the South, both because he was the leader of the Democratic Party and because he was a frequent visitor to Georgia. The New Deal promised to bring the South, most of which didn’t even have electricity at the time, closer to the economic levels of the rest of the country. But alongside the economic benefits Roosevelt brought were expanding federal authority and a burgeoning African-American voting bloc. “Whereas only 25 percent of African Americans had voted for Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election, 75 percent of black ballots cast in 1936 went for Roosevelt,” according to Ward. Even as Southerners voted for FDR en masse, elites in the region dreaded the long-term consequences of his policies.
Not even a year into Roosevelt’s first term, a Tennessee businessman argued that the southern labor system, which relegated blacks to substandard wages, was being undermined by the National Recovery Administration, which raised wages, shortened working hours and improved working conditions with codes and regulations. His calls had echoes with race-baiting politicians like two-term Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, who warned that his Roosevelt-friendly primary opponent “prefers that the Negro race be predominant.”
Roosevelt’s second term was even more contentious. Northern blacks participated in the 1936 Democratic National Convention, and the rule requiring nominees to have the support of two-thirds of the party delegates was dropped. Southern Democrats essentially lost their veto power over nominees as a result. “The doors of the white man’s party have been thrown open to snare the Negro vote in the North,” lamented South Carolina Senator Ellison DuRant “Cotton Ed” Smith.
In Ward’s view, the Civil Rights era, at least as far as Capitol Hill was concerned, really began with the crusade for federal anti-lynching legislation in the mid-1930s. Led by the NAACP, a bill sponsored by New York Democrat Joseph Gavagan passed overwhelmingly in the House but in the Senate met the longest filibuster in five decades. Roosevelt had attempted to purge his party of Southern conservatives, but failed, letting his civil rights agenda (modest as it was) die as a result.
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World War II saw opposing attempts to capitalize on the crusading spirit of the country. Civil rights activists called for a “Double V”: victory against fascism and Japanese militarism abroad and against Jim Crow at home. They attempted to integrate the Armed Forces. But white supremacists countered with a campaign to preserve the South’s peculiar institutions. “In their descriptions of the wartime threats facing the South, the defenders of white democracy often cursed African Americans and the Axis in the same breath,” Wade writes. “[M]any white southerners regarded Nazism and NAACP-ism as a dual threat to the Southern way of life.”
Still, black equality continued to advance. The courts struck down the White Primary in Texas and an anti-poll tax was introduced in Congress. However, “more than any single racial controversy, the battle over fair employment accelerated the emergence of a self-consciously ‘segregationist’ movement. While racial conservatives warned that abolition of the poll tax and the white primary would lead to ‘social equality,’ federal efforts to combat workplace discrimination represented a more direct assault on the color line.” Residential segregation, public accommodations and especially workplace discrimination all came under criticism, if not assault. The Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), itself a manifestation of the wartime civil rights movement, shone the spotlight on racial separation instead of political repression. White supremacists shifted focus to segregation accordingly.
Cheap (often free) black labor lay at the heart of the Southern way of life. Well after the end of slavery, Jim Crow ensured that blacks remained permanently subjected for whites’ economic benefit. Naturally, then, attempts to level the playing field for African-Americans galvanized the segregationist movement. Moreover, the FEPC “also presented an opportunity [for Southerners] to reconcile the segregationist position with a more transcendent rhetoric of individual liberty.” White supremacy’s rhetorical vulgarity and directness appealed only to some Southerners; it was out. Individual liberty, which affected employers (and, later, homeowners) nationwide, was in.
Harry Truman then entered the fray with a broad array of reforms. He established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCP). He became the first president to address the NAACP’s annual convention, where he spoke about the need for federal civil rights protections. He outlined a program that included most of the major recommendations of the PCCP, and pledged to desegregate interstate transportation and the armed forces. Texas Senator Tom Connolly called Truman’s a plan “a lynching of the Constitution.”
Truman’s offensive effectively mobilized the Dixiecrats, the largest concerted effort to maintain “states’ rights” via a new political party. In Ward’s telling, “[S]tate’s rights propagandists blended their critique of the civil rights movement with a broader appeal to constitutional conservatism.” They thought the civil rights movement was a tyrannical effort to force southerners to “abandon their rights regarding suffrage, education, health, recreation, wages, police powers, profits, and all rights to regulate the life of their citizens,” as a Mississippi circuit court judge argued. In a striking change, centralization of power in Washington, which previously had been seen as vital to maintaining Jim Crow, now became the enemy.
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Though the Dixiecrats were soundly defeated, they learned from the loss and refined their message. “I shall make no appeals based on prejudice or passion, even if the prejudice happens to be on that I shared from my natural experience of growing into maturity in the South,” claimed Mississippi Senator John Stennis, the only southern member of the Rules Committee. Instead, Stennis argued that Southerners should emphasize the constitutional failings of the civil rights agenda, as all Americans could respond to a defense of individual rights. They needed to “stres[s] the threat to the freedom of the whole nation that is implied in these unconstitutional attempts to abridge the freedom of the people of one section.” He advocated divorcing the question of states’ rights from “the so-called racial question” and the south specifically, and enlisting conservatives across the country to the cause of “freedom.”
Truman’s civil rights programs stalled within months of his re-election in 1947, as Southerners defended “freedom of choice” and “freedom of association.” They had difficulty opposing Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, however, reluctant as they were to castigate the military. Still, “their critique of a federal government forcing social experiments without legislative sanction or public consent echoed in the growing conflict over school desegregation.” Thus Brown vs. Board of Education didn’t blindside Southern leaders as has been claimed: “Southern politicians had argued for years that racial struggles could eventually lead to the schoolhouse door.”
Courts, meanwhile, were the target of increasing ire as Southerners attempted to improve the life of black children to counteract the notion that separate was not equal. South Carolina’s governor proposed the first sales tax in South Carolina history to finance higher salaries for black teachers, transportation for black children and new schoolhouses. Alas, the high price tag of equalizing African-American education (to say nothing of other public facilities) met with considerable resistance. Segregationists entered what should probably be called the classical Civil Rights era already feeling besieged and nostalgic. “Segregationists perceived themselves not simply as champions of Jim Crow but also as guardians of the American way life.” Strom Thurmond drafted the “Southern Manifesto,” which outlined the constitutional and legal basis for segregation. National Review and Human Events took on the southern cause with gusto, and the Civil Rights era as we know it was begun.
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All of this is to say that the popular idea of a white backlash is false, or, at least, incomplete. Rather than the result of civil rights legislation and court decisions, White resistance wasn’t just a reaction to civil rights legislation and court decisions, but to the anticipated black equality project of Martin Luther King’s movement. Segregation’s proponents were organized, powerful and deeply entrenched at the highest levels of the South.
At the time, Libertarianism, with its emphasis on rights for individuals, would have proved deeply inadequate for the cause of equality. Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act was based on the notion that the federal government has no right forcing private establishments to conduct their business in specific manners. Goldwater’s position, echoed by Rand Paul decades later, underscores the weakness of libertarianism: its complacence with actual existing power structures, and wholesale rejection of the top-down force needed to overturn injustice. Ultimately, it took the federal government, using everything from troops to presidential addresses to national legislation, to end Jim Crow. Only the U.S. government had the power and legitimacy to do so. For all libertarianism’s virtues, its willful blindness to injustice makes it a poor philosophy when confronted with powerful social forces that deny individuals their basic rights. Majorities can always thwart minorities in raw power terms, and eventually force of the kind only a national government can provide is needed to further minority rights. It was true in the Civil Rights era, and it remains true today.
Jordan Michael Smith, a contributing writer at Salon, has written for the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe.