During a recent debate, 9th Congressional District candidate Rich Iott was indecisive about whether he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I was surprised to hear that — and disturbed.
The 1964 act prohibits race discrimination in education, employment, and places of public accommodation, as well as discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, and religion in employment. It is one of the highlights in the history of federal lawmaking.
The law did not come without a struggle. Civil rights activists risked their lives to protest segregation in the Jim Crow South. Their fight for racial justice led to the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., called for civil rights legislation in his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.
Congressional debate over the act lasted more than a year. It included an 89-day filibuster, the longest in the history of the Senate.
The law was a landmark in the history of expansion of civil rights. It led to a period during which Congress also acted to prohibit discrimination based on gender, disability, and age, and created a right to public education for disabled children. If the 1964 act is invalid, that calls into question the validity of all these other measures, which protect the rights of millions of Americans.
Candidates say a lot of things during election campaigns, and we voters can agree or disagree with them. It is not unusual for a candidate to make a gaffe or a mistake. Still, only occasionally does a candidate say something that is truly extreme, outside the norm of political discourse.
Questioning the 1964 Civil Rights Act falls into this category. When Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for U.S. senator from Kentucky, criticized the act, the negative response he received caused him to back off his position.
Apparently Mr. Iott, also a Republican, has now spoken in support of the act. Nonetheless, I am disturbed that these candidates seem to value their anti-government ideology over what is best for the American people.
Since 1964, I thought we had achieved a national consensus that race discrimination is wrong, that there is no such thing as a private right to discriminate on the basis of race, and that because all races, creeds, and colors — not to mention both genders and those with disabilities — contribute to America's greatness, all are entitled to share in it.
So it is troubling when candidates for public office appear indecisive about such fundamental tenets of our country, or are somehow unaware of what has made us great.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was an essential step towards fulfilling the promise of our forefathers that “all men are created equal” and entitled to the equal protection of the laws. That is a crucial thread binding the tapestry that is America.
During such difficult times, we ought to be looking for ways to knit that tapestry ever more tightly, rather than tearing it apart.
Rebecca E. Zietlow is Charles W. Fornoff Professor of Law and Values at the University of Toledo College of Law.
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