This year, from the Supreme Court to the sports pages, discussions of racism have dominated the news. But let’s not kid ourselves and think this is all something new. When it comes to racial issues, the most unfairly maligned American of the last 50 years has been under fire for exactly that long.
His name: Barry Goldwater.
Political observers limit their summation of his long career as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate to one thing: his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It is one of the cruelest ironies in American politics that Barry Goldwater, who treated everyone — whether white, black, red or brown — with the same respect should be consigned to the ash heap of history as a racist.
Goldwater wanted to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as he had the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960. But he reluctantly decided he could not, because he could see that the bill’s Title II and Title VII were unconstitutional. He predicted that Title VII, which dealt with employment, would end in the government dictating hiring and firing policy for millions of Americans. So it has come to pass.
He was not swayed by Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the floor leader of the legislation, who assured his colleagues that the act “does not require an employer to achieve any kind of racial balance in his work force by giving preferential treatment to any individual or group.” Goldwater foresaw that, regardless of the soothing rhetoric, Title VII would lead to preferential treatment.
Goldwater was aware that he would pay a heavy price for his “nay” vote, but may not have realized just how heavy. Baseball great Jackie Robinson called Goldwater “a hopeless captive of the lunatic, calculating right-wing extremists.” NAACP secretary Roy Wilkins said that a Goldwater victory in the presidential race “would lead to a police state.” Martin Luther King Jr. declared that if Goldwater were elected the nation would erupt into “violence and riots, the like of which we have never seen before” (which, in spite of LBJ’s election, it did anyway).
These cruel charges deeply hurt Goldwater. He was half-Jewish and as a private citizen and U.S. senator had fought discrimination time and again. He led the way in desegregating the Arizona Air National Guard in 1946, two years before President Truman desegregated the armed forces. He was an early member of the Phoenix chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League, even making up the latter’s operating deficit when it was getting started. He desegregated the Senate cafeteria in early 1953, demanding that his black legislative assistant be served along with every other Senate employee, after learning she had been denied service.
Not all black Americans were eager to wrap the albatross of racism around Goldwater’s neck. In recognition of his many contributions, most of them unpublicized, Goldwater received in 1991the Humanitarian Award “for 50 years of loyal service to the Phoenix Urban League.” When some League members objected — recalling the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the League president said flatly that Barry Goldwater had saved the League more than once and he preferred to judge a person “on the basis of his daily actions rather than on his voting record.”
However, in 1964, Mississippi was burning and freedom riders were being murdered. Black Americans had been waiting a century for their basic civil rights. They were unaware of Goldwater’s pro-civil rights record over the years and what he had written about racial tolerance in his diary in 1939, long before he had any thought of public office:
“I have always thought and have never lost sight of the thought that all men were and are created equal…. this is the one statement I will make now that in the years to come I will not have to retract – I love my fellow man be he white or black or yellow and I am vitally interested in his well-being for that well-being is my well-being.”
When confronted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and its questionable constitutionality, his conscience led him in a different direction than his fellow Republicans. He did not flinch from the consequences, saying simply, “If my vote is misconstrued, let it be.” His concern was not with himself or any single group but with the nation and “the freedom of all live in it and all who will be born in it.”
Here was the quintessential Goldwater word: “freedom.” He would not give in to the passion of the moment, no matter how justified and moral it seemed, if it endangered individual freedom and violated the document he revered above all others, the U.S. Constitution.