Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, a fantastic piece of legislation that ended segregation of public facilities and outlawed discrimination in hiring.
The Act helped bring to an end a long and disgraceful period in American history when many states practiced legal segregation and discrimination. These policies made a mockery of the freedom supposedly won by blacks after the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
Republicans in the years following the Civil War rightly bear much of the blame for legal segregation and blatant discrimination. They betrayed blacks in the South by pulling federal troops out too soon, allowing southern whites to impose mandatory segregation laws. The decades following Reconstruction were the lowest point in the history of blacks in America.
Republicans redeemed themselves somewhat in 1964 by providing the votes needed to pass the Civil Rights Act. Though Democrats today spin it as a Democratic initiative, more Democrats voted against the Civil Rights Act than Republicans. Democrats in the Senate voted 46 for, 21 against, while Republicans voted 27 for and only 6 against. In the House, Democrats voted 152 for and 96 against, while Republicans voted 138 for and only 34 against.
Unfortunately, we don't spend enough time talking about the good that the Civil Rights Act accomplished. Instead, we argue more about affirmative action. For example, Phil Singer, a spokesman for Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry, used the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act to charge that President George W. Bush "has turned the clock back on civil rights" by opposing affirmative action.
This is hollow and hypocritical rhetoric. The Civil Rights Act's biggest contribution was ending legal segregation in public facilities and outlawed discrimination in hiring. Affirmative action began as a remedy for discrimination against nonwhites in awarding federal contracts, and then expanded to include the corporate world and then college admissions. When white women qualified for it, affirmative action changed from a racial remedy into a more vague and general liberal protest movement. There is no evidence it is helping blacks today get ahead.
Today the term "affirmative action" is rarely defined. It has become little more than a slogan to rally black support for the Democratic Party. Whatever its merits and problems – and it has had many of both – affirmative action has run its course. It no longer deserves to be the focus of attention by blacks.
The real issue is affirmative opportunity: preparing blacks and other nonwhites to take advantage of opportunities available to them. The Civil Rights Act and the Declaration of Independence before it focus on equal opportunity. Respect for the inalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" unites all citizens of good faith. Affirmative opportunity is what the fight for justice and equality is really about.
President Bush, like his father and President Reagan before them, understands the difference between guaranteeing equal rights and using government programs in a futile attempt to make people equal. He has not tried to "turn the clock back on civil rights," and he deserves a much more balanced view by blacks and civil rights advocates.
The Bush administration can, however, be faulted for not making a stronger effort to reach out to black voters and black civic and business leaders. The administration does communicate with the black community as much as it does with other ethnic groups, such as Hispanics. The last mature and credible advocate for blacks to serve in the White House was Melvin Bradley, who served in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1987 in the Office of Policy Development and Office of Public Liaison.
It is a pity, then, that President Bush used the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act to do little more than praise Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He could have asked for the black vote based on its commitment to affirmative opportunity and its record, particularly in the area of education, of helping blacks take advantage of the opportunities now available to them.
Lee H. Walker is president of the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change and a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute.
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