Rand Paul and Segregation

It seems as though Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Kentucky, son of Texas congressman Ron Paul, and self-proclaimed representative of the Tea Party movement, has some serious difficulty explaining his approach to questions of race and civil rights. During an appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, Paul started by saying that he liked civil rights and opposed discrimination; he even claimed he would have marched with Martin Luther King had he been old enough. However, he suggested that he would seek to end the parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that required privately-owned businesses that served the public to desegregate.  Just as Paul was misrepresenting his ability to join the 1963 March on Washington (he was born in 1963), he was also attempting the impossible feat of appropriating King’s legacy while arguing for dismantling one of the movement’s most substantive victories.

When pushed by Maddow to explain comments he had made to The Louisville Courier-Journal , Paul argued that the parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that require private businesses serving the general public to serve all customers without regards to their race, gender, religion, or national origin need further “discussion.” He insisted that he agreed with the parts of the Act that required publicly owned facilities like public transportation to serve everyone regardless of race, but that private businesses should have been exempt.  He asserted that the government shouldn’t “want to harbor in on private businesses and their policies” and that by forcing businesses to integrate, the Civil Rights Act was deciding “that restaurants are publicly owned rather than privately owned.” According to Paul, the historic battle to be served at lunch counters at Woolworth’s or Kress stores, or to use the public restrooms or water fountains in those stores was, in fact, an intrusion. For Paul, the desegregation of these businesses was a kind of “government takeover” that infringed on the First Amendment rights of segregationist business owners to say “abhorrent things.”

Paul’s comments echo with the arguments made to advocate for segregation in his state before the turn of the twentieth  century.  In 1891 it was State Senator Tipton Miller from rural Calloway County, Kentucky, who proposed a new law requiring railroads “to furnish separate coaches or cars for the travel or transportation of the white and colored passengers.” It detailed an efficient and cost effective means for privately owned railroad lines to divide passengers that left blacks jammed behind uncomfortable partitions marked with “appropriate words in plain letters indicating the race for which it is set apart.” Segregation was favored by businesses in Kentucky and the new law was a way to codify the preferences of white passengers throughout the state.

In response, a group of black educators, ministers, and businesspeople from Kentucky organized the Anti-Separate Coach movement. They attempted to halt the passage of the separate coach law, organizing mass meetings, drawing up protest documents, and presenting petitions to the governor and the state legislators.  They called their campaign “moral warfare” and insisted that they deserved “true and just recognition” in every part of their society. Their battle continued even after the law was passed, and they organized a test case to challenge the new law. However, the Federal court upheld Kentucky’s segregation law as constitutional, arguing that integration would make African Americans “the special favorite of the laws.”

Based on the idea that businesses should have a right to chose whom they would serve, within the next two decades there would be no places for black travelers to ride without unjust treatment, no places where they could eat while traveling, and no hotels where they could stay overnight. The first law that offered substantive relief to millions of black southerners was the hard fought for 1964 Civil Rights Act, which defined public accommodations as hotels, stores, gas stations, and restaurants that serve the general public. Paul’s argument that he is “for civil rights” yet against this “intrusion” in private business, strikes at the heart of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and attacks the legacy of protest in his state and our nation.

This article is crossposted at Salon.com.

Blair L. M. Kelley is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson.


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  3. I want to preface this comment by saying that I disagree with Dr. Paul, but I have to jump in here and point out that your rebuttal—like most I’ve seen since his interview on Rachel’s show—ignores an extremely important part of his position, as I understand it: that legislatively mandated segregation is and ought to be illegal. My understanding of Dr. Paul’s argument is that absent government support for segregation (active and passive), social and economic pressures would have been sufficient to end “private” segregation in the South. I think he’s wrong, but we’ll never really know, because it was never tried. We went from state-sanctioned/required segregation (this includes failure to successfully prosecute people who assaulted de-segregation advocates) to the public accommodations component of the Civil Rights Act.

    Again, I vehemently disagree with Dr. Paul on this matter, and believe that the public accommodations component of the Civil Rights Act was absolutely necessary, and, arguably, the most important single part of it. I just want the debate to be over Dr. Paul’s actual position, not some knee-jerk, didn’t-pay-close-enough-attention reaction to it. I think THAT conversation would benefit everyone.

  4. I’m going to try once more to make the point I tried to make on twitter yesterday.

    “Based on the idea that businesses should have a right to chose whom they would serve, within the next two decades there would be no places for black travelers to ride without unjust treatment, no places where they could eat while traveling, and no hotels where they could stay overnight.”

    Even if there was business *support* for legislated segregation, that does not mean it makes any sense to say that legislated segregation was “based on the idea that businesses should have a right to choose whom they would serve.” Choice by firms was prohibited by state mandates.

    If the segregationist businesses and clientele thought it was important to impose their preferences by legislative mandate, there was *some* possibility of defection by individual firms (or new competitors) that they were afraid of– you don’t bother to legislatively mandate what you’re sure is going to happen anyways.

    There are good reasons why hotels, restaurants, and transportation were viewed by common law as being only partly private; the “public accommodations” idea wasn’t invented in 1964. So Paul’s wrong about the background legal presumption. And the experience of the private white academies showed that the apartheid regime couldn’t be undone while respecting a public-private boundary of the sort Paul talks about– the white south would be too opportunistic in its use of the protected “private.” And Paul’s shallow and ignorant not to know that.

    But your critique here is still off-target. If one is going to critique the “private sphere free to discriminate or not” idea, saying “things were really awful when the state required private firms to discriminate” is a non-sequitur.

  5. This is why we routinely get disingenuous morons in Congress. You can’t have a intelligent debate about the effectiveness or Constitutionality of certain government legislation without being called a racist, or sexist, or whatever. You can scream that you are not a racist at the top of your lungs, but if you don’t support some legislation coming out of the government no matter what its flaws, then your the problem. The part about private institutions should have never been put into the civil rights act. Property is either private or public, If I own private property then I get to decide who goes on it not mater how convoluted the reasons. I would like you liberals to explain to the logic that if I don’t support government regulation of a problem that I am against the problem. If don’t support welfare, I must want everybody to remain poor, despite the fact that most people on welfare never pull themselves out of poverty. A doctor might give me a prescription to cure an illness, but after a certain amount of time if it doesn’t work I expect him to try a different drug. I don’t accuse him or her of trying to kill me because they wont refill the prescription of the same uneffective drug. Yet this is the routine mindset of the left. You are in favor of repealing social security, you must hate old people, even though the federal governments treatment of social security makes the owners of Enron look like boyscouts. I would like to ask Rachael Maddow if she thinks that the Curves fitness center for woman should be fined and shut down since they routinely discriminate against women. What about the lack of white woman in the Mrs. Black America pageant. You do not have to have federal government involved in order to take a moral stand.

  6. @Mike: I wouldn’t assume that we are “way past that now”. On the surface things may look better in this country, especially based on what the media portrays, but the reality is that we are still faced with the same racial and cultural difficulties that have plagued our country for hundreds of years.

    Certainly there has been much progress, but we have a LONG way to go before things are where they should be. Hopefully progress begins to snowball, especially with younger (more liberal) generations seeming to accept multiculturalism more openly.

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