Sherrilyn A. Ifill: Disturbing Lessons of the Rand Paul Fallout





[Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland and a regular contributor to The Root.]

Every few years, some Republican leader gets caught giving voice to a stubborn and persistent yearning for the racial dynamics of the era preceding the civil rights movement -- a yearning that remains a foundational, defining ethic for at least some GOP members. In 2002 it was then-Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who at a birthday party for segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., expressed a longing for the world promised by Thurmond's states' rights presidential candidacy in 1948....

This year it's Kentucky libertarian and Republican candidate for the Senate Rand Paul, who, during his performance on The Rachel Maddow Show May 19, insisted that the application of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to private businesses may violate the free speech right of business owners to be overt racists. Even a libertarian like Paul realized in subsequent days that he would have to dial back his comments.

But what has been most illuminating about the fallout from the Paul controversy is the reluctance of some mainstream Republicans to forcefully and clearly support the Civil Rights Act. In the days immediately after Paul's Maddow appearance, prominent Senators -- including several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- refused to explicitly condemn his assertions or to offer unequivocal support for the Civil Rights Act....

It's stunning to see this level of hesitation and incoherence among influential Republican leaders in expressing support for the Civil Rights Act, which, along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is one of the crown jewels of the civil rights movement. Passage of the act was won through the blood and guts of civil rights protesters and activists....

Like Paul, the owners of Southern drugstores and department stores thought that they had the private right to admit and serve only those people they wished. Both Congress and the Supreme Court disagreed. In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the commerce clause of the Constitution gives Congress authority to enact the provisions in Title II of the Civil Rights Act that deny private motels the right to refuse to admit black guests....



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