We’ve been here before. A candidate for federal office is touting the “rights” of business people to serve, or refuse to serve, anybody they wish. The candidate is not the late Lester Maddox of Georgia, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, George Wallace of Alabama or Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. The candidate is Rand Paul, a Libertarian and the son of Libertarian Congressman Ron Paul. Rand Paul is the new Republican nominee for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Jim Bunning of Kentucky.
On both National Public Radio and MSNBC, Rand Paul was unable to give a straight-forward, yes-or-no answer to the question of his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said he was for nine of the 10 sections of that landmark legislation. But he equivocated for more than 15 minutes on MSNBC and on NPR over his position on public access to restaurants, businesses and public accommodation.
Paul refused to specifically say that all Americans should have access to all businesses that are open to serve the public. When asked specifically if the drugstore lunch counters of the 1960s should have been desegregated, Paul launched a rambling comparison to the rights of gun owners to carry guns into restaurants where restaurant owners object.
Rand Paul is advocating “individual rights” as opposed to the right public policy, which the United States adopted in 1964. Back then the opposition flew the flag of states’ rights. States, they said, had the right to regulate commerce and protect the lifestyle insured by segregated facilities. We saw Wallace stand in the school house door defying federal law and prohibiting African-American students Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama. All of this was done under the banner of states’ rights. Wallace mounted a national campaign for the presidency on the theme of states’ rights and individual freedoms, which meant freedom for white people to continue to enjoy the rights of citizenship denied to minorities.
Now in 2010, the mantra is individual rights. Paul is a Tea Party candidate, and if anyone doubted that the Tea Party movement harbors an insidious streak of racism, Paul has removed all doubt. The national media picked up Paul’s equivocation, forcing him to clarify his position; he responded by saying he is not in favor of repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul blames the messenger, in this case Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, for creating the controversy when it is Paul himself who equivocated for so long it became obvious he valued property rights over civil rights.
Paul, in his victory speech, said, “I have a message from the Tea Party, we’re here to take our country back.” Paul must mean he intends to take our country back to the 1950s when blacks were denied the right to eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels, attend concerts, ride in the front of the bus or have a milkshake at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Paul protested criticism of his position by asking, “Am I a bad person?” as if this type of racism was a carbon copy of the white-sheeted Ku Klux Klan variety of the South. Rand fits well Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book title, “Racism Without Racists.” The new racism of this movement is educated, well-dressed and feigns insult when their position is unmasked as “color-blind racism.” Any retreat back into a segregated, two-class society based on race is unacceptable to people of good will and especially to followers of Jesus.
Our voices must be raised again in moral outrage that a candidate for the United States Senate feels comfortable today rejecting the hard-won rights of all Americans to equal, unfettered access to businesses open to serve the public. Paul says he is not for “repealing” the Civil Rights Act, but his failure to affirm the rights of access granted by that act places him only one decision away from doing further damage to equality in this country.
We’ve been here before, but this time we know the difference. All Americans have the right to enjoy a meal, rent a room, see a movie, attend a ballgame, catch a concert or ride a bus. We can’t go back. We must embrace again the clause “we the people” and reject “me the individual” as the basis for public policy and debate. Paul’s position cannot go unchallenged, and I for one do not intend to let it.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.