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Rand Paul the relic

May 21, 2010 |  9:13 am

I hate the term "teachable moment," but Rand Paul's comments about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provide one, especially for those who don't remember the 1960s. Paul, the "tea party"-loving Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky, now says he would have voted for the legendary law, including its provisions prohibiting discrimination in "public accommodations" -- that is, hotels, restaurants and other private businesses that cater to the public. But earlier comments suggested the opposite.

Paul's gaffe is a reminder for many -- and a revelation for many more -- that not everyone who opposed the public-accommodations provisions was a racist. Hard as it may be to believe in 2010, the argument floated by Paul -- that a business owner has the right to discriminate -- was at one time a respectable libertarian position.

More important, some supporters of the public-accommodations provisions worried that they stood on shaky legal ground. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, but it did so largely on the grounds that discrimination affected interstate commerce and that Congress had the right to regulate interstate commerce. The case involved a motel in Atlanta that had a policy of "refusing to rent rooms to Negroes," as the court put it. That affected whether they would travel, and travel was related to commerce. At the time, some lawyers thought that was a reach. Some probably still do, but they won't say so.

In retrospect, it's clear that non-racists who argued against the Civil Rights Act lacked moral imagination, and the same can be said for Paul. He's a relic, but it's important to know what he's a relic of.

-- Michael McGough


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