Barry Goldwater and civil rights

Barry Goldwater was a fine human being.  I would have been proud to know him.  He was not a racist. He was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP and helped bring about the desegregation of the Arizona National Guard.  His position was that governmental authority should never be used to uphold racial discrimination or segregation. At one time that was the progressive position. Goldwater was a friend of the native American tribes of Arizona, and more open-minded than most straight people of his era about gays and lesbians.

His opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was on a matter of constitutional principle, that the government had no right to tell owners of private businesses who they should serve or who they should hire. It was in the same spirit as the American Civil Liberties Union, which defends the right of free speech even for racists and radicals.

But whatever Goldwater’s intent, his position was the beginning of the process which transformed the Republican Party from the party of Lincoln to the part of the white South. He had no sympathy for cross burners and church bombers, but they found aid and comfort in Goldwater’s position. That is why the only states that Goldwater carried were his home state of Arizona plus South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

When the 1964 Civil Rights law was passed, President Lyndon Johnson said the Democratic Party had lost the South for a generation. George Wallace carried the Deep South in 1968 and the Republicans in every election since then. The Solid South is as solid for Republicans as it once was for Democrats.

While Democrats were credited and blamed for the 1964 law, it got stronger support in both the Senate and House of Representatives from Republicans than from Democrats.  But, except for Richard Nixon, the individuals who represented the future and energy of the Republican Party were against it. Ronald Reagan was against it. George H.W. Bush was against it. Future Chief Justice William Rehnquist was against it. William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman were against it.

I don’t have any reason to accuse any of these individuals of racism. I knew a white Republican physician in Hagerstown, Md., who had many black patients in 1964, in a time and place when that was not taken for granted, and was a strong Goldwater supporter. But it is because of the Goldwater movement that Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and David Duke found their home in the Republican Party.

Click on this for an 11-minute segment on Rachel Maddow’s TV show about the 1964 civil rights law.

Click on this for a defense of the Goldwater position on civil rights.
Click on this for a range of opinions on Goldwater’s legacy.

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