So in coming up with a post for MLK Day, I can do no better than quoting from one of our super-threaders—C.J. Wolfe:

I agree about the point on LBJ and civil rights. On a personal level and on the level of foreign policy LBJ was not a likeable President, but he did play a crucial role in the civil rights for the country. For me as a student of politics, it’s very significant that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is what really ended segregation in this country, not simply the 1954 Brown v. Board decision. It can’t be understated that Congress, the President, and a grassroots movement led by Martin Luther King to do it. Taken alone, Brown v. Board wasn’t even enough to desegregate schools in the south. My home state of Arkansas had chosen to shut down public schools instead of complying with Brown I; the command to integrate “with all deliberate speed” in Brown II left the door open for District level judges to enforce integration extremely slowly if it occurred at all. It was the provision in the Civil Rights Act about the removal of Federal education dollars from states with segregated schools which turned the tide. The law was well-designed and well deliberated, and President Johnson played an important role in that Congressional deliberation.

To begin with, the decision in BROWN had to be enforced, but the Court, in BROWN II, seem to say that the states weren’t required to act at any particular time. From MLK’s view, the Court’s thinking was that of the “white moderate,” the one who knows what’s right but prefers order to justice, who paternalistically believes that there’s no urgency when it comes to another man’s freedom.  So the enforcement of BROWN depended on the “direct action” of the civil rights movement, action that lovingly dramatized the injustice of the law through the willingness to accept the penalty for it.

The successful goal was to made to need for justice more urgent. That movement—thanks, in part, to TV network news moving from 15 to 30 minutes (creating time to highlight the sometimes brutal southern reaction to direct action)—turned American public opinion on the issue of urgency from mid-1963 to mid-1964, allowing Congress, with the guidance of the president, to act in a correct and deliberate, but very timely, way.

The Fourteenth Amendment, after all, is supposed to be mostly enforced by Congress.  And not only was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 well designed to be effective, it articulated truthfully the Amendment’s intention of applying the colorblindness of the Constitution of 1787 to state law.  Not only was BROWN, of course,  hopelessly vague when it came to implementation, it was probably even more so in explaining why segregation is wrong.  (The Court was much closer to right in BOLLING v. SHARPE, but nobody noticed.)  In terms of constitutional interpretation and being the cause of change we can believe in, the Court has never done as well, especially when it comes to race, as Congress did in 1964.

So the great contribution of MLK to our country was in shaming white moderates to do the right thing under our Constitution.  The great contribution of LBJ was, having been shamed, leading Congress to act, less out of expediency than out of principle.

We conservatives, when thinking about the Sixties, find much more evidence than usual to support Tocqueville’s proposition that things are always getting better and worse. The general “arc,” though, is they got better and then they got worse.

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