Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” address.
A commemorative march will climax with speeches on the same site as Dr. King’s storied remarks. President Obama will take the role of star speaker, clearly a marker for how much the nation has changed in the years since that long-ago day – as will be the presence of former president’s Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Southerners and (unthinkable for major politicians from the South in 1963) both strong supporters of civil rights. The day will mark great and essential transformations in American life. It will also mark great misunderstandings about the past and the present.
Start with the present.
There will be much talk about jobs and justice. In a reality-based world, for this president to embrace a true jobs agenda would require an about-face in his current economic policies. He would cut taxes and regulations, rather than try to increase them. He would abandon his health care reform for the free-market agenda. He would call for the repeal of two other major job-killers – Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley. He would approve the Keystone pipeline and call the EPA off its lawless romp against American industry and agriculture, including its attempt to defy Congress and impose a radical climate change policy on the nation.
Then, too, in a reality based world, a presidential call for justice would signal an about face on the administration’s recently renewed opposition to school choice and the minimum wage. Blocking school choice and increasing the minimum wage are the modern equivalents of Jim Crow laws for young, poor African-Americans in particular. They raise barriers against these young men and women gaining an education that can lead to a satisfying career, as well as barriers preventing initial jobs from even being available to them in the first place.
But Washington today is far from reality based. So we can expect the speakers and especially the president to double down on the failed policies of the last four and a half years. For those concerned about real jobs and real justice in the real world, the rhetoric at today’s ceremonies will feel unreal.
What about the misunderstanding of the past?
Start with a remark Lyndon Johnson supposedly made after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, almost exactly a year to the day following the 1963 march. The story is that he said his signature would end the Democratic Party’s dominance of the South. Liberals have taken the remark as meaning that segregationists would go to the Republican Party, making it the anti-civil-rights party and explaining their party’s losses in the region in the year’s that followed.
In fact, from the Civil War through the end of the Civil Right era, the GOP was united behind full equality before the law for African-Americans. This solid wall of support included the party’s most prominent dissenter from the 1964 Act, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater considered the goal right but the means mistaken. His massive defeat in the subsequent presidential election came because so many Republicans considered his Senate vote unacceptable. The 1964 election only confirmed that so long as segregation was an issue, an enduring north-south coalition within the Republican Party was out of the question. Traditional Republicans would not stand for it.
Johnson’s signature spelled the legal end to segregation, with the quiet diplomacy of Richard Nixon’s Justice Department five year’s later ending segregation in fact. After that, the pre-Civil War North-South Whig coalition reformed over defense and economic issues, accounting for Nixon’s huge win in 1972. Eight years later, Ronald Reagan attracted other South voters concerned about social issues, leading to the South’s politics of our time. But again, none of this transformation would have been possible until the end of segregation.
Today’s speakers will be clueless about both the present and the past. Still, however mistaken they are, on one fact all Americans can agree: the nation is far better and in critical ways truer to its founding ideals today thanks to the marchers and speakers of 50 years past.