Fifty years ago: Civil rights and the newly conservative GOP

     In this Aug. 6, 1968 black-and-white file photo, 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, addresses the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. (AP Photo/File

    In this Aug. 6, 1968 black-and-white file photo, 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, addresses the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. (AP Photo/File

    This is a big month for milestones, and while I’d prefer to mark the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (which premiered in London on July 6, 1964), I need to focus on Barry Goldwater. Because July 1964 was an historically pivotal month in American politics.

    Fifty years ago yesterday, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in public accomodations. The act had been passed with major help from moderate congressional Republicans. But two weeks after LBJ put pen to paper, Republicans lurched sharply to the right. They nominated, as their ’64 presidential candidate, a guy who had voted against the Civil Rights Act. And thus, under Barry Goldwater, the modern conservative movement was launched.

    In other words, just as America was finally poised to reject institutional racism, the GOP made common cause with the people (primarily, southern whites) who liked institutional racism. Sadly, Goldwater’s reactionary fervor, at the expense of African Americans, became a foundational cornerstone of the conservative moment.

    Goldwater wasn’t personally racist, but his rhetoric was packed with what we now call “dog whistles.” Angry whites deciphered his code phrases, and they got the message loud and clear.

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    In 1964, referring to the high court’s famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared that school segregration was unconstitutonal, Goldwater insisted: “The Supreme Court decision is not necessarily the law of the land.” He had earlier denounced “abuses of power by the court.” (Today, this kind of ‘tude, this rhetorical defiance of federal authority, is endemic in the tea-partying conservative GOP.)

    Also in ’64, Goldwater declared: “I will never vote for any public accomodation clause in any civil rights bill, because I think it’s unconstitutional. I think it tampers with the right of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the freedom of property.” A few dog-whistle translations: Racists who own restaurants and hotels have the right to tell blacks to hit the bricks; racists who want to discriminate have a right to do so if they believe that God made blacks inferior. (Today’s conservative GOPers invoke “religious freedom” to justify discrimination against gays and women’s health choices.)

    But the shrillest dog-whistle was blown on July 16, 1964, in the final moments of Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice….Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Translation: Do whatever it takes, and never compromise.

    Southern whites took his message to heart. Five months later, on election night, they abandoned LBJ’s Democratic party in droves, and propelled Goldwater to victory in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Turned out, those were the only sole states that voted for Goldwater (aside from his native Arizona), in the worst GOP wipeout in modern times. But he did manage to sow the seeds for the today’s arch-conservative GOP, which has been anchored in the South and the Sunbelt for the past 50 years. The white flight of the ’60s sowed the seeds for today’s white party.

    But here’s the kicker: When Goldwater was older, he warred repeatedly with the religious right, insisting that it was wrong to legislative morality and intrude on people’s private lives. He also bucked his party by insisting that gays should be free to serve openly in the military: “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.” For that, he was eviscerated by the conservative movement he had done so much to nurture.

    And given the zeal of today’s conservatives – who truly believe that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and who persist in believing that last week’s GOP Mississippi primary was stolen by black voters – you have to wonder whether Barry Goldwater could even win a contemporary Republican primary.

    What a depressing thought for a holiday eve. Heck with it, let’s do the Beatles.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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