Does Reid need a "history lesson" for slavery remarks?

Conservatives assail the majority leader over his comparison of reform opponents to those who blocked civil rights

Published December 8, 2009 11:30PM (EST)

The right is still pretty upset about a comparison that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid drew between those now opposing healthcare reform and people who fought against abolition, womens' suffrage and the civil rights movement. But Reid isn't backing down.

"At pivotal points in American history, the tactics of distortion and delay have certainly been present," the majority leader said Tuesday. "They've certainly been used to stop progress. That's what we're talking about here. That's what's happening here. It's very clear. That's the point I made -- no more, no less. Anyone who willingly distorts my comments is only proving my point."

Separately, the Wall Street Journal's John Fund criticized Reid on historical grounds, writing:

Historians also faulted Mr. Reid's curious reference to the Senate civil rights debates of the 1960s. After all, it was Southern Democrats who mounted an 83-day filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. The final vote to cut off debate saw 29 Senators in opposition, 80% of them Democrats. Among those voting to block the civil rights bill was West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who personally filibustered the bill for 14 hours. The next year he also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Mr. Byrd still sits in the Senate, and indeed preceded Mr. Reid as his party's majority leader until he stepped down from that role in 1989.

Fund's line of attack was odd, and for more than one reason. For one thing, Reid never said it was Republicans who'd opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Fund gave it the inaccurate title of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.) For another, making this sort of argument in a column titled "Harry Reid's History Lesson" is just ironic, because it betrays a lack of knowledge of the actual history of the Civil Rights Act and the years that followed.

Democrats did lead the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, there's no doubting that, and that's something the party -- and especially Byrd -- has to reckon with. But there's a reason why President Obama is a Democrat. There's a reason why the vast majority of African Americans have voted Democrat for decades now, and it's not because they support the pro-segregation party.

The Civil Rights Act was the beginning of the end for the Southern faction that was once key to the Democratic party. Some Southern Democrats, like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, simply became Republicans. Others, loyal to generations of Democrats that came before them, hung on to their affiliation, only to become the last of a dying breed as Republicans -- using the Southern Strategy -- picked up the mantle of the party opposed to civil rights and ran with it.

There was one other very important senator who supported the filibuster, one whose name Fund didn't mention. That would be Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., who said the bill was "a threat to the very essence of our basic system." Later that year, Goldwater became the Republican Party's nominee for president. He was also the model for President Reagan, and for much of the modern conservative movement.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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