It seems as though Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Kentucky, son of Texas Rep. 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 Woolworths or Kress stores, or 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 the arguments made for segregation in his state before the turn of the 20th 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 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.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor of History at North Carolina State University. Her book "Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson" came out earlier this month.