"I abhor racism, I think it's a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant, but at the same time, I do believe in private ownership."
- Rand Paul
If you notice, they have never been on our side.
"They" meaning social conservatives. "Our" meaning African-American people.
They were not there in the century after the Civil War, as conservative Southern Democrats violently repressed would-be black voters, made a shadow government of the Ku Klux Klan, turned a deaf ear to the howling of lynch mobs and lynch victims. They have not been there in the half century since, as conservative Southern Republicans fought affirmative action, poverty programs, and attempts to ban the American swastika, i.e., the Confederate battle flag, from public lands.
They have never been on our side and always, they have claimed "principle" to justify it. So remarks like the one above that got Kentucky senatorial candidate Rand Paul in trouble last week are surprising only in the sense that one is surprised to hear an oldie on the radio one hasn't heard in a while.
He first told the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal, then reiterated in last week's interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, that he thinks the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 overreached in telling private businesses they could not discriminate against black people. Paul, a Republican, a tea-party favorite and an apostle of tiny government, considers private ownership sacrosanct.
If that sounds familiar, it's because it was also the reasoning of segregationists in '63 and '64.
The civil rights bill "would dictate to private businessmen who they must do business with," said ex-Mississippi Gov. J.P. Coleman.
It "would further impinge on the right of private property in this country," said Georgia Sen. Richard Russell.
It represents a "threat to the fundamental right of private property ownership," said the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News.
With an obtuseness that can only be called stunning, Paul repeated that reasoning to Maddow, then dismissed the whole thing as "abstract," and "obscure."
Spoken like a man whose forebears never suffered the stark humiliation of arriving in a strange town and having to ask around for a hotel that would take them or a restaurant that would serve them.
And frankly, if anyone had shown such tender concern for American principles from the beginning, there'd never have been a need for a Civil Rights Act in the first place.
What part of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments did they not get? What part of "all men are created equal" confused them? As poet Gil Scott-Heron once observed, "I have become a special amendment for what included me all along."
Paul, under fire for his extremist views, has now recanted them. And he'd like you to know he would have marched with Martin Luther King if he'd had the chance.
Because, ironically enough, he came of age in the world the act created, he probably even believes that. "Everyone" thinks they would've marched with King - "now," when having done so is a badge of honor. But Paul would "not" have marched with Martin Luther King in 1964, when doing so was an act of courage. Nor, by definition, would Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or any other social conservative.
They have "never" been on our side. No, they would have been on the side of the Confederate flag-wavers, the church bombers and cross burners, piously decrying those peoples' excesses but providing the intellectual cover that allowed the excesses to continue. Faced with people crying to be free, they'd have retreated behind dry legalisms to explain why freedom could not be had. That's what social conservatives did 46 years ago.
Apparently, they are doing it still.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.