The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forever changed American society. It literally opened up doors previously closed to racial minorities. But during a recent appearance on the "Rachel Maddow Show," Kentucky senatorial candidate Rand Paul questioned whether the government should have made it a crime for private businesses to racially discriminate against customers, such as when restaurants refused to serve black patrons who organized sit-ins at lunch counters in protest. He argued that by including this component (Title II) in the Civil Rights Act, the federal government infringed on the rights of private property owners.
"Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?" Paul remarked during his interview with Maddow. He went on to say that, had he been in office when the Civil Rights Act came under debate, he would have tried to change it because it undermines the first amendment rights of property owners. He also compared the federal government ordering business owners not to racially discriminate to the government telling business owners not to refuse service to patrons armed with guns.
"Then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says 'Well no, we don't want to have guns in here...because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other,'" he said.
Since Paul made his remarks, he's come under intense fire. After all, had the federal government not prohibited private businesses from refusing service to customers based on race, racial segregation in the public sphere would have flourished, not faded. If there was a time for the government to step on the toes of property owners, certainly the 1960s qualified.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is African American, defended Paul on ABC's "This Week" but stopped short of supporting his statements and refused to answer when asked if he felt comfortable with Paul's words. Steele simply argued that Paul's perspective on civil rights reflected a "philosophical position...held by a lot of libertarians, which Rand Paul is. They have a very, very strong view about the limitations of government intrusion into the private sector."
Steele said it was up to the people of Kentucky to decide whether they could support a candidate with such views. For the record, Paul has since tried to clarify the statements he made during the Maddow interview, explaining that he believes, "we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person. I have clearly stated in prior interviews that I abhor racial discrimination and would have worked to end segregation. ...I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Despite such clarifications, Paul still seems to believe that the government overstepped its bounds when it ordered private businesses not to racially discriminate against patrons. He not only noted that the Civil Rights Act was debated on constitutional grounds when introduced but also criticized the "intrusive" actions of the federal government today.
"This much is clear: The federal government has far overreached in its power grabs," he said. "Just look at the recent national healthcare schemes... The federal government, for the first time ever, is mandating that individuals purchase a product. The federal government is out of control, and those who love liberty and value individual and state's rights must stand up to it."
But in a democratic nation which acknowledges that all men are created equal, individual and state's rights should not include the right to discriminate based on race. Moreover, activist group Color of Change argues that Title II of the Civil Rights Act didn't help to prevent discrimination solely in the 1960s.
"Recent history has shown that the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act is still needed," the group noted. "In 1994, it was used to hold Denny's Restaurants accountable, after the chain repeatedly refused to seat black customers. Just last year, it was used to go after a Philadelphia pool that prevented black children from swimming there."
Given this, Paul's comments about the Civil Rights Act are all the more irresponsible.