Thursday, May 20, 2010

Paul, King and Civil Rights

Rand Paul has had some controversial things to say about the Civil Rights Act of 1964... as this link from The Atlantic to an interview with Rachel Maddow indicates. He appears to be casting himself in the pattern of the late Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who famously opposed the clause of the Act dealing with private businesses on constitutional grounds even though he avowed himself opposed to segregation (and, indeed, did work in Arizona to break down racial barriers in a number of discrete instances).

Paul does not come off very good here overall (neither does Maddow when she refers to sit-ins at "Walgreens lunch counters," but that's another story). Sure, you can make a philosophical argument about private property rights, but the historical reality of Jim Crow America was, in a word, depraved. It was also systematized. These were not individual decisions, made by individual citizens. (Most of whom, for the sake of reference, were Democrats; the long and terrible history of race in America is by now a blot on both parties.)

One statement that particularly troubled me, however, was Paul's reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as being concerned exclusively with laws and changing the legal framework of the South. Yes, King was very concerned--even centrally concerned, in many phases of his work--with eliminating de jure, or legal, segregation. But at no point did he ever lose sight of the overwhelming significance of hearts and minds in the battle for equality of opportunity in the United States. He spoke of love; peace; justice (not just legalism, but justice). He was a Christian, speaking of the radical redemptive power of faith and the topsy-turvy reordering of society that Jesus told his followers to undertake. Toward the end of his life he moved increasingly into a realm of concern over issues of poverty and the ways race and class intersected outside the land of Jim Crow--de facto segregation, which was no less real and often more difficult to eliminate, residing as it did in custom and practice, rather than in books of law.

King was no legalist. And when it comes to human rights, neither should any of us be.

No comments: