Should business owners have the right to discriminate against people because of their race, creed or color? Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) believes the activities of the federal government during the civil rights era were not necessary. He feels business could have been forced to change without federal intervention. Paul’s viewpoint is not unique and it represents standard libertarian policy. They would have told the civil rights demonstrators to wait, and things would change eventually.
There is some merit to this argument in that a few businesses bowed to economic pressure, but the federal government was needed. Martin Luther King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” is an answer to the Congressman. King said blacks had been waiting for over a century since the emancipation proclamation, and little substantive action had occurred.
The solution demanded action from the federal government. King helped to launch the civil rights movement and tells the story of bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins and prayer marches to change the policies of business owners. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act resulted in significant positive change, and Rep. Paul is wrong.
These laws were necessary. They banned segregation in schools and public spaces and made it illegal to discriminate in housing and hiring processes. It is naïve to think southern states would have voluntarily stopped discrimination.
The Congressman is a firm advocate of states’ rights. Strom Thurmond and George Wallace agree with him. They both said they were not racists, but they ran for president as “States Rights” segregationists. They wanted civil rights to be decided by the states, not the federal government.
Private organizations and clubs can discriminate. Businesses however are public, and therefore the Civil Rights Act applies. A business can not deny the equal rights of a consumer. Jim Geraghty of National Review says “Libertarianism aims to protect individual rights but segregated lunch counters negate individual rights.”
Business can’t be divorced from the community in which they operate. For that reason, no one would say that they shouldn’t be required to follow certain health standards, building codes, safety regulations, zoning laws and child-labor laws — all ways in which businesses are regulated in the public interest.
The Civil Rights Act simply extended that principle to another problem of grave public concern.
Simply put, what you do privately or in your own home is your own concern, including who you invite as guests and who you choose to marry.
It has no relationship to the laws or regulations that govern running a business open to the general public. And when you’re running a business, declining to serve a customer because of the way he or she behaves or because of the person’s reputation, has no relation to refusing service on the basis of that person’s race.
Furthermore, there were actually laws on the books in southern states mandating segregated private facilities at that time. It wasn’t the business owners, but their customers, who were demanding it. The Supreme Court case of Plessey v. Ferguson involved a state statue criminalizing transportation of Blacks and Whites in the same train car.
Congressman Paul says the Civil Rights Act is a violation of the Constitution and it reduces individual liberties. He was one of only 33 Congressmen to oppose the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. A 2008 interview on “Meet The Press” featured the following exchange with the Congressman:
Q: In a speech you gave in 2004, the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, you said: “Contrary to the claims of supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the act did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.” That act gave equal rights to African-Americans to vote, to live, to go to lunch counters, and you seem to be criticizing it.
A: Well, we should do this at a federal level, it’d be OK for the military. Just think of how the government caused all the segregation in the military until after World War II.
Q: You would vote against the Civil Rights Act, if it was today?
A: If it were written the same way, where the federal government’s taken over property–it has nothing to do with race relations. It has nothing to do with racism, it has to do with the Constitution and private property rights.
Those who wanted legal segregation to continue were able to obtain it by saying the federal government should stay out of private businesses. Today it is accepted that businesses which serve the public should not be able to discriminate. In the past it was not possible to solve this issue on the local level.
Unfortunately it was necessary for President Eisenhower to send the 101st Airborne Division from Kentucky to Little Rock, Arkansas. President Kennedy sent federal troops to the University of Mississippi and he had to take over Alabama’s National Guard. There are times when federal action is required to make sure there is not any roll back in civil rights policies. Blacks had waited long enough for civil rights, and the Libertarian arguments should be rejected.