Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lessons from the Politics of Civil Rights

This week in 1964, the U.S. Senate passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination in places of public accommodation, publicly owned facilities, employment and union membership, and federally aided programs. It also gave the Attorney General new powers to speed school desegregation and enforce the right to vote that had been extended to African Americans.

The passage and implementation of the Civil Rights Act was a seminal event in American history because it moved us closer to Jefferson's founding declaration that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inaleinable rights." It pushed us forward in our pursuit of Lincoln's "more perfect union."  And it made good on Kennedy's pledge to pass a new law that would uphold "the one plain, proud and priceless quality that unites us all as Americans: a sense of justice."

But as significant as this event was from a standpoint of public policy and treating people of all races with the dignity to which they are entitled as members of the Human Race, there is an important historical fact surrounding the passage of the legislation in the Senate that is instructive for us nearly 50 years later.

The bill passed by a vote of 73-27.  Voting for the bill were 46 Democrats and 27 Republicans.

Did you catch that?  What is arguably the most important piece of domestic legislation in the 20th century was passed in the U.S. Senate purely because morally courageous elected officials from both major parties were willing to step forward and find a way to do the right thing.  In fact, the media coverage surrounding the passage of the legislation at that time emphasized the crucial role played by Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader.

"After the roll-call, several thousand people gathered in the plaza before the floodlit Capitol to applaud the Senate Democratic leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, and the Republican leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois," wrote the New York Times. "Mr. Dirksen was instrumental in shaping the compromise that the Senate passed.  Tonight the first sign that a vote on the bill was imminent came about 7 o' clock when Senator Mansfield rose and paid tribute to Senator Dirksen, who framed the substitute bill.  'This is his finest hour,' Mr. Mansfield said. 'The Senate and the whole country are in debt to the Senator from Illinois.'""

This is a far cry from the horrible political division we've had to observe from our elected officials for the past several presidential administrations.  Can anyone actually picture the Senate Minority Leader of 2010 working with the Senate Majority Leader in order to help pass legislation proposed by the Democratic President, then being championed by his colleagues in the other party for his efforts?

In reflecting on this historical anniversary this week and trying to piece together how our political process has seemingly devolved into the same partisan nonsense every Congressional term, it occurred to me that there is another undercurrent here for us to consider.  It is the historical tension between "leaving things alone" and "moving things forward" and between "this is how we've always done it" versus "let's try it a different way."

This was in fact a major reason for the initial Congressional opposition to the Civil Rights Act.  A group of Senators from each party had objected to the bill because they felt it to be an unconstitutional intervention of public policy into private commerce.  It was Republican Sen. Dirksen himself who rose in opposition to this conservative reasoning, ticking off a long list of social and economic legislation that had been similarly called unconstitutional when first proposed.

"Today they are accepted because they were a forward thrust in the whole effort of mankind.  There is latitude enough in the Constitution to embrace within its four corners these advances," he said on the floor of the Senate, in making his final argument for a vote in favor of the bill.

Sen. Dirksen was actually echoing the legacy of Jeffersonian philosophy when it comes to how we view our Constitution and the pursuit of arete in public policy.  Jefferson famously wrote: "No work of man is perfect. It is inevitable that, in the course of time, the imperfections of a written Constitution will become apparent. Moreover, the passage of time will bring changes in society which a Constitution must accommodate if it is to remain suitable for the nation."

This is perhaps the more interesting division in American politics -- those who view our existing way of doing things (e.g., health care model, financial regulation, etc.) as something to be revered and preserved, versus those who believe there are better ways to accomplish moral excellence in public policy.  This was the very tension at play in 1964, only then the tension was bipartisan.

It is sometimes amusing that so many who invoke the name of Jefferson and other founders as reasons to cling to their traditional ideas about government policy are unwittingly becoming the very kind of people Jefferson warned about when he worried that future Americans might be tempted to show a "sanctimonious reverence" for the Constitution. 
"This principle, that the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,... will exclude... the ruinous and contagious errors... which have armed despots with means which nature does not sanction, for binding in chains their fellow-men," Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789.

Democratic and Republican Senators alike -- men of strong will and moral courage -- came together on this date back in 1964 in order to literally free some of our fellow citizens and metaphorically free all of us from ruinous and contagious errors when it came to how American institutions were allowed to treat people of color.  Are we listening to their legacy?

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