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Conservatives Can Be Proud of Their Civil Rights Record By: John Fonte
National Review | Thursday, January 09, 2003


After Lott, the GOP's conservative base does not need a "heart transplant" as Senator Frist suggests, it needs a "memory transplant." Shortly after the downfall of Trent Lott as Senate Majority Leader, NRO's Jonah Goldberg noted that "Conservatives — though not Republicans — were often at best MIA on the issue of civil rights in the 1960s." That's not exactly right. Bread-and-butter conservatives in Congress (as opposed to conservative writers), that is, men such as Everett Dirksen and Bill McCulloch in the 1960s and Bill Knowland in the 1950s, were strong supporters of equal rights for all Americans. Let us reexamine the history of conservative and Republican involvement in the creation of racial equality under law in this country over the past half-century.

In the 1950s, while Republican President Dwight Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the Supreme Court's school-desegregation ruling, Senator John Sparkman of Alabama (Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's former vice-presidential running mate) protested this desegregation decision by signing the congressional "Southern Manifesto" attacking the court's ruling. In 1957 the Eisenhower administration, led by Republican Attorney General Herbert Brownell, steered through Congress the first civil-rights bill since Reconstruction. In that fight over protecting voting rights, veteran civil-rights lobbyist Harry L. Kingman described Republican Senate Leader William Knowland of California (a strong conservative) as a "key man in the victory." Clearly, Republican leader Knowland took a stronger pro-civil-rights stand than Democrat Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who at the time was accused by some civil-rights groups of introducing amendments that weakened the bill.

In examining the crucial civil-rights issues of the 1960s we should: (1) revisit the role Republicans (and particularly conservative Republicans) played in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and (2) reexamine the original intent of the bill itself. Contrary to popular amnesia, it was the congressional Republicans, not the Democrats, who were most responsible for this great victory for equal civil rights for all Americans.

The civil-rights bill of 1964 was enacted with strong bipartisan and bi-ideological (conservative and liberal) support. But, the credit for the civil-rights victory has gone almost exclusively to liberals and Democrats, particularly to Senator Hubert Humphrey (D, Minn.) in Congress, and to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. However, much of the hard work of advancing the legislation was done by congressional Republicans — conservative stalwarts including Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, Charles Halleck of Indiana, William McCulloch of Ohio, Robert Griffin of Michigan, Robert Taft Jr. of Ohio, Clarence Brown of Ohio, Roman Hruska of Nebraska, and moderates such as Thomas Kuchel of California, Kenneth Keating of New York, and Clark MacGregor of Minnesota. All of these Republicans served as major leaders of the pro-civil-rights coalition either as floor managers or captains for different sections of the bill.

Although the Democrats controlled both houses of the Congress at the time, a much-higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats supported the civil-rights bill. For example, in the House, Republicans voted for civil rights by a margin of 79 percent to 21 percent, 136-35. The Democrats' margin was 153-91 or 63 percent to 37 percent.

However, the single-most-important vote for the legislation was the attempt to cut off the anti-civil-rights filibuster in the Senate. In order for the bill to pass, civil-rights supporters needed two thirds of the Senate to break a filibuster by the opposition. Republicans voted overwhelmingly to break the filibuster by 81.8 percent (27-6), but only 65.7 percent of the Democrats voted to end the filibuster (44-23). Thus, if only Republicans in the Congress had voted, any potential filibuster would easily have been overridden. But, if only Democrats had voted, the pro-civil-rights forces would not have been able to obtain the necessary two/thirds vote to break the filibuster and the civil-rights bill would have died. No Republicans in Congress, no civil-rights bill — it is as simple as that.

Only a handful of Republicans opposed the civil-rights bill. The most prominent among them was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who became the party's presidential candidate in 1964. Interestingly, Goldwater had always been a strong supporter of racial equality and supported the Eisenhower civil-rights bills of 1957 and 1960 that strengthened voting rights for African Americans. As Lee Edwards noted in The Conservative Revolution: "As chief of staff of the Arizona National Guard he [Goldwater] had pushed for desegregation of the guard two years before President Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces." Goldwater stated that workforce discrimination was "morally wrong," but worried that in the future the federal government might "require people to discriminate on the basis of color or race or religion" and, thus, in the end, opposed the bill.

The civil-rights bill of 1964 banned discrimination in voting, public accommodations, education, federal programs, and employment on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex. In supporting the legislation, the bipartisan coalition invoked Judeo-Christian tradition, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and particularly the concept of "equality of opportunity." Southern Democrat opponents charged that the legislation would lead to racial preferences, but the bipartisan congressional leaders clearly stated that this was not the intent of the bill.

On April 9, 1964, Hubert Humphrey replied to the allegation that Title VII on employment discrimination would lead to racial preferences by stating, "It the Senator can find in Title VII…any language which provides that an employer will have to hire on the basis of percentage or quota related to color, race, religion, or national origin, I will start eating the pages one after another, because it is not in there."

To ensure that the bill would not be misinterpreted to promote racial and gender preferences, the pro-civil forces added an amendment to Title VII, Section 703 (j) that stated, "Nothing contained in this title shall be interpreted to require any employer…to grant preferential treatment to any individual or any group because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin…on account of an imbalance which may exist…with respect to the total number or percentage of persons of any race, color, religion, or sex, or national origin…in comparison with the total number or percentage of persons…in any community…or in any available work force…."

By the end of the debate more than 40 members of Congress denounced racial and gender preferences, and no one spoke in favor of them. Opposition to preferences was voiced by liberals including: George McGovern (D, S.D.), Edmund Muskie (D, Md.), Adam Clayton Powell (D, N.Y.), and John Lindsay (R, N.Y.), as well as conservatives including: Everett Dirksen (R. Il.), Gordon Allot (R, Co.), Frank Carlson (R, Kan.), and James Bromwell (R, Iowa).

Alas, in the decades since the passage of the civil-rights bill, judicial activism, and bureaucratic rulemaking have violated the clear intent of the Congress in prohibiting racial and gender preferences.

Since 1964, two serious efforts have been launched to recapture the American principles of individual rights and equal opportunity embodied in the original legislation. First, in the 1980s, the Reagan Justice Department under Edwin Meese and Bradford Reynolds challenged group preferences in the name of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Second, in the 1990s, the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209) and Washington State's initiative I-200, promoted by Ward Connerly, used the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in successful referenda that outlawed racial and gender preferences in those states.

Most conservatives and Republicans stood with Meese and Reynolds, and with Connerly. Those who did not should be ashamed of themselves, for they betrayed the spirit of Dirksen, Halleck, McCulloch, and those other rock-ribbed conservative Republicans who played such a large part in enacting the most important civil-rights legislation of the century. Conservatives and Republicans who understand both the history of their party and the bedrock constitutional and moral principles on which it rests will not permit themselves to be browbeaten by the Lott affair. Instead, they will press on by supporting a return to the original intent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as well as the foundational principles of the American republic) and the elimination of racial-, ethnic-, and gender-group preferences — once and for all.


John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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