All Commentary
Thursday, December 1, 1988

Book Review: Changing Course: Civil Rights at the Crossroads by Clint Bolick

Transaction Books, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903 • 1988 • 152 pp., $24.95 cloth.

The civil rights movement in the United States has undergone radical changes in the past, 20 years. Following the death of Martin Luther King, the movement deteriorated into a loose-knit faction that claims to advance the ideas of earlier leaders. In reality, the movement has swung full circle to work against the original design.

Clint Bolick, who has served as counsel in several leading civil fights cases, has written a book which could go a long way toward bringing the civil rights movement back on course. The book has two parts. The first contains a brief, yet penetrating, history of civil rights in America. In the second part, Bolick offers his program for re-establishing civil rights based upon the principles of liberty, property, and equality before the law. Throughout the book, Bolick’s analysis is incisive and his writing is clear.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century civil rights leaders drew heavily upon the ideas of John Locke. Locke wrote that all people have a right to life and property, including property in themselves, and logically deduced the necessity of equal opportunity before the law. He, in effect, set the justification for a free society upon two planes: (1) the ethical notion of the individual’s right to property and freedom of choice and (2) the political view of representative government to protect those rights.

This classical liberal concept of equal rights, based upon the right to life and property, made it impossible for slavery to continue unchallenged. The stage was set for the abolition movement.

Organized opposition to slavery in America had begun in the late 1600s, especially in New England and among the Quakers. The Revolutionary leaders documented their support for civil rights in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Yet they did not eliminate the institution of slavery which was contrary to all they believed and fought to attain.

Bolick details the abolitionists’ efforts to eradicate slavery and to educate the public in the classical liberal ideas which form the basis of civil rights. His analysis of this important period in civil rights history is concise and enlightening.

Early nineteenth-century abolitionists promoted several methods of education and manumission with limited success. William Lloyd Garrison became their leader, publishing his arguments in The Liberator and participating in the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Regardless of method, the typical abolitionist’s stand was upon his or her faith that all persons are created equal. The debate over slavery truly became a battle with lines drawn on moral absolutes.

Resorting to political means, abolitionists founded the Liberty Party in 1839. They met with difficulty because of their limited constituency and voting restrictions on blacks and, in 1848, many joined with the Free Soilers. By 1860, the political forum for the abolitionists had expanded and strengthened. The result was the Republican Party with Abraham Lincoln as its candidate.

The American Civil War, for all its bloodshed and destruction, ensured that equal rights for all citizens would be incorporated into the law of the land. Slavery was abolished officially in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment. Congress also enacted the Freedmen Acts to assist former slaves. The Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1871, according to Bolick, held to the original interpretation of civil rights for protection on the Federal and state levels. The Fourteenth Amendment banned discrimination by states; the Fifteenth Amendment ensured voting rights regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” These Amendments sought to remedy inadequacies in the law and to counter the Black Codes formulated in the South to subjugate the freed slaves after the War.

Stifled on one front, white racists responded by erecting economic barriers to black progress. The Supreme Court sanctioned this approach by taking a narrow view of civil rights in the famous Slaughter- House Cases. Various states soon contrived Jim Crow laws modeled after the earlier Black Codes.

The intellectual descendants of the original civil rights leaders were subsequently led by Booker T. Washington. Washington stressed the idea of black self-help, and asked only that the rights of Negroes be construed in the context of equality before the law. His critics, notably W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, did not like what they considered his placation of white supremacists. Despite this infighting, the efforts of civil rights leaders succeeded in opening new opportunities for black Americans and culminated in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) in 1909, formed expressly to secure equal rights for blacks.

The years of the World Wars and the Great Depression brought new challenges for the civil rights movement. Other minorities entered into civil rights controversies, most notably the Japanese in the 1944 case of Korematsu v. United States, which supported the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War U. This case reaffirmed the “reasonableness” criterion

established in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson, which had sanctioned “separate but equal” laws. The states or federal government now could discriminate in the “public interest.” In other words, the rights of United States citizens were conditional—determined by the partiality of the legislature and the courts. Legal paternalism was accepted and institutionalized.

The catchword of the twentieth century became “segregation,” and two distinctive movements for black civil rights emerged. The traditional ideas were taken up by Martin Luther King and the N.A.A.C.P. Meanwhile, another pressure group developed, picking up some of the old separatist ideas advanced by Marcus Garvey in the last century. Characterized by notions of class conflict, collectivism, and forced economic reallocation, this new separatism was a militant and racist thorn in the side of equal opportunity. Nonetheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, along with other changes in the 1960s, bolstered the legal and social foundations of civil rights.

Since the 1960s, however, we have witnessed a major alteration in the civil rights movement. Bolick calls the dramatic deviation a “revision” because it borrowed from the old school on the surface, but actually adopted the new separatist approach. The vocal new order calls for equality in result, collective identification, and a questionable perception of “rights” that has little or no relationship to individuals’ rights. This is the status of the movement today.

The second part of the book addresses the contemporary civil rights scene and lays out a compelling plan for the future. Particularly noteworthy is Bolick’s chapter on “The Necessity of Judicial Action,” which contains his theories for returning to the original interpretation of equal rights in the courts. This chapter is especially interesting in light of recent controversies surrounding the Supreme Court that have brought out new questions as to the proper role and impartiality of that court.

On three points, however, I must disagree with the author. First, he advocates “Economic Liberty Acts” to be passed by legislatures on the state and Federal levels. These acts supposedly would promote entrepreneurship by prohibiting government intervention into economic activity. Second, he believes that inner-city areas should be set aside as “enterprise zones,” a kind of capsulated capitalism. Third, he endorses a “voucher system” for parents to opt out of public schools and tax credits for supporters of children in private schools. These three suggestions are political remedies subject to the whim and caprice of politicians, and beg the question of truly principled action.

On the whole, however, I cannot speak too highly of this book. If you read between the lines, you realize that what we see and heartoday is not the legacy of Dr. King. The loud and intimidating antics of some of today’s civil rights leaders may overshadow this fact, but Bolick’s message is clear when he concludes that “The challenge is for whites to learn the lessons of the past two decades; for blacks, to demand and exploit the opportunities that America’s commitment to civil rights is intended to guarantee; and for all Americans, to be faithful to the ideals upon which this nation’s claim to greatness is based.” []

Mr. Helstrom is a member of the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education.

  • Carl Helstrom is the current Chairman of State Policy Network. He is Executive Director of The JM Foundation and the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation in Princeton, New Jersey. A graduate of Grove City College (Grove City, PA), he worked with free enterprise education and research organizations for more than ten years before becoming a consultant to several private foundations and joining JM and Milbank in 1997.

    Carl is also a Trustee of the A. P. Kirby Jr. Foundation in Mendham, NJ and a Director of The Roe Foundation of Greenville, SC. He and his wife, Jane, have three sons.