The Civil Rights Act vs. States’ Rights

When the Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago, opinions were sharply divided about whether the federal government was overstepping on states' rights.

As Goldwaterites welcome their man to St. Louis, rivals Johnson and Humphrey smile calmly from poster held by a Democratic interloper. Photo credit: Burt Glinn The Saturday Evening Post, October 24, 1964.

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As Goldwaterites welcome their man to St. Louis, rivals Johnson and Humphrey smile calmly from poster held by a Democratic interloper. Photo credit: Burt Glinn The Saturday Evening Post, October 24, 1964.
As Goldwaterites welcome their man to St. Louis, rivals Johnson and Humphrey smile calmly from poster held by a Democratic interloper.
Photo credit: Burt Glinn
The Saturday Evening Post, October 24, 1964.

No one was surprised when President Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill was blocked by a group of 19 senators in 1964. On March 30, they launched a filibuster to prevent a vote on the bill, knowing that if it passed, it would seriously challenge the racial status quo in their states.

As described in a Post editorial, the bill would ensure black Americans’ voting rights, end discrimination in public accommodation, and empower the U.S. Attorney General to bring lawsuits to desegregate public schools. It would also let the federal government cut off assistance to state and local programs that practiced discrimination.

One of the bill’s most vocal opponents was South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who called the bill “unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise…beyond the realm of reason.” A Georgia senator added, “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality.”

But after 54 days of filibustering, the bill’s supporters had gathered enough votes to end the filibuster. On June 10, the bill was voted on and passed, 73 to 27. President Johnson signed it into law on July 2, fifty years ago to date.

Arizona’s Barry Goldwater was among the 27 senators who had voted against the civil rights bill, but he wasn’t discouraged by the defeat, because he planned to use the bill’s passage to help him win the presidency in the fall election.

Goldwater recognized that the Civil Rights Act would split the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party. For years, the Democrats had been able to hold these two warring factions together, but as the liberal wing began supporting the growing civil rights movement, many white, conservative Democrats began withdrawing their support of the party their families had supported for generations.

The day would come, Goldwater predicted in a 1963 Post article, “The G.O.P. Invades the South,” when the region would vote solidly Republican. He noted that Republican candidates were already winning elections in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia. The South would shift its party allegiance, he said, because of “a profound evolution of political thinking and acting.”

It had nothing to do, he asserted, with white voters being angry with liberal Democrats’ support of integration. Southerners were leaving the party, he said, because they believed in “state’s rights,” and limiting the role of the federal government. They viewed the Civil Rights Act as an intrusion that, Goldwater argued, would eventually lead to “the creation of a police state.”

Civil rights were important, Goldwater believed, but they were “resolved more safely and soundly on the state or local level.”

But the local level, as Anthony Lewis wrote, was precisely where the problem lay. (“Goldwater Is Wrong On Civil Right” September 26, 1964) The law in southern states and towns was vigorously enforcing racist policies, using intimidation and violence to deprive African Americans of their rights.

The U.S. Government had tried Goldwater’s approach for nearly a century, Lewis argued. When states were left on their own to handle race relations, “the result was massive inequality, injustice, and cruelty that shocked the conscience of this nation…The law has been cynically manipulated to maintain white supremacy, in defiance of the most elementary rights of a citizen.”

Federal intervention was necessary, he said, to prevent state officials from enforcing racist politics, as in the illustrations he offered:

• When a Mississippi college student asked a country registrar’s help to enroll black voters, the registrar refused, threatened him with a gun, and then, as the student was leaving, clubbed him over the head. The student was then arrested, jailed, and charged with disturbing the peace.

• Twelve black residents in Louisiana asked city officials to form a committee to address race relations in the community. All twelve were arrested on charges of intimidating public officials. Their bail was set at $30,000.

• When a young civil rights worker was arrested in a Georgia town, she called her father, who drove down from Kansas to bail his daughter out of jail. As they were leaving town, a police car pulled them over. The father was arrested, frisked, handcuffed, and put in county jail for “driving a car with a bad muffler.”

• Fifty-seven black Mississippians asked their local deputy sheriff to protect them from harassment during their voter registration campaign. The sheriff arrested them and charged them with disturbing the peace. After a night in jail, 46 of them were tried and sentenced to six months in jail and fined $35,000.

• Over 300 Freedom Riders, both black and white, were arrested in Jackson, MS, for attempting to break local laws that segregated bus terminals. Charged with “breach of peace,” they were unable to get the charges dismissed until they took their case to the Supreme Court

By emphasizing states’ rights and dismissing the problems of civil rights, Lewis wrote, Goldwater encouraged racist politicians like Governor Wallace of Alabama to defy federal law, acts which contributed to the atmosphere of violence in the South.

“There have been so many horrors in the last year,” Lewis wrote, “that one’s senses have become numbed: four little girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church; Medgar Evers of the N.A.A.C.P. shot outside his Jackson, Miss., home; a negro army officer murdered as he drove along a Georgia road; three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi; and 15 negro churches in that state burned within a month.”

While Goldwater was looking forward to a solidly Republican South, a Post editorial was foreseeing an angry black community. Within the decade, the editors wrote, most of America’s largest cities would have populations that were mostly African American. Unless they were “given hope and some sense of citizenship and self respect, this huge majority is dead sure to be led by people who hate the guts of every white man.”

Goldwater lost the 1964 election by the largest margin in 144 years. He won only 38.5 percent of the popular vote and carried just five states in addition to Arizona. All five were in the south.

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