associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. Author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson.
Rand Paul, the Republican Senate nominee from Kentucky, is scrambling to tamp down a growing firestorm over comments he made suggesting he does not favor portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
We’re joined by North Carolina State University professor Blair Kelley, author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, and Mike Ervin, a freelance journalist and a longtime activist with the disability rights groups ADAPT. We’re also joined by blogger Joe Sonka, who broke the story on a racist MySpace post that led to the resignation of Rand Paul’s former communications director, Christopher Hightower. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Rand Paul, the Republican Senate nominee from Kentucky, is scrambling to tamp down a growing firestorm over comments he made suggesting he does not favor portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Paul discussed his views on the civil rights legislation on Wednesday, the day after his Kentucky primary victory, in an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. He was questioned by host Robert Siegel.
ROBERT SIEGEL: You’ve said that business should have the right to refuse service to anyone and that the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, was an overreach by the federal government. Would you say the same, by extension, of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
RAND PAUL: What I’ve always said is that I’m opposed to institutional racism, and I would have, had I been alive at the time, I think, had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism. And I see no place in our society for institutional racism.
ROBERT SIEGEL: But are you saying that, had you been around at the time, you would have — hoped that you would have marched with Martin Luther King, but voted with Barry Goldwater against the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
RAND PAUL: Well, actually, I think it’s confusing on a lot of cases with what actually was in the civil rights case, because, see, a lot of the things that actually were in the bill, I’m in favor of. I’m in favor of everything with regards to ending institutional racism. So I think there’s a lot to be desired in the civil rights. And to tell you the truth, I haven’t really read all through it, because it was passed forty years ago and hadn’t been a pressing issue in the campaign on — you know, for the Civil Rights Act.
ROBERT SIEGEL: But it’s been one of the major developments in American history in the course of your life. I mean, do you think the '64 Civil Rights Act, or the ADA, for that matter, were just overreaches and that business shouldn't be bothered by people with the bases in law to sue them for redress?
RAND PAUL: Right, I think a lot of things could be handled locally. For example, I think that we should try to do everything we can to allow for people with disabilities and handicaps. You know, we do it in our office with wheelchair ramps and things like that. I think if you have a two-story office and you hire someone who’s handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the governemt saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator. And I think when you get to solutions like that, the more local, the better, and the more commonsense the decisions are, rather than having a federal government make those decisions.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Rand Paul being questioned by Robert Siegel on NPR’s All Things Considered on Wednesday. That evening, Paul appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. Host Rachel Maddow pressed him to clarify his views on the civil rights legislation. These are highlights from that interview.
RAND PAUL: There’s ten different titles, you know, to the Civil Rights Act, and nine out of ten deal with public institutions and I’m absolutely in favor of. One deals with private institutions. And had I been around, I would have tried to modify that. When you support nine out of ten things in a good piece of legislation, do you vote for it or against it? And I think sometimes those are difficult situations. I do defend and believe that government should not be involved with institutional racism or discrimination or segregation in schools, busing, all of those things. But had I been there, there would have been some discussion over one of the titles of the civil rights. If we want to harbor in on private businesses and their policies, then you have to have the discussion about, do you want to abridge the First Amendment, as well?
RACHEL MADDOW: Should — Woolworth lunch counters should have been allowed to stay segregated? Sir, just yes or no.
RAND PAUL: What I think would happen — what I’m saying is, is that I don’t believe in any discrimination. I don’t believe that any private property should discriminate either, and I wouldn’t attend, wouldn’t support, wouldn’t go to. But what you have to answer, when you answer this point of view, which is an abstract, obscure conversation from 1964 that you want to brind up, but if you want to answer, you have to say then that you decide the rules for all restaurants. And then, do you decide that you want to allow them to carry weapons into restaurants?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Rand Paul’s comments ignited a firestorm of criticism and prompted him to issue a statement on Thursday saying he would not support an effort to repeal the Civil Rights Act. He said, quote, "I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws." Later that evening, appearing on CNN, he was questioned by Wolf Blitzer.
WOLF BLITZER: And I’ll ask you a simple question: if you had been a member of the Senate or the House back in 1964, would you have voted yea or nay for the Civil Rights Act?
RAND PAUL: Yes, I would have voted yes.
WOLF BLITZER: So why is there all this confusion emerging right now? Give me your analysis, because you had to issue a statement today. There have been interviews on NPR yesterday and MSNBC. Tell us what’s going on.
RAND PAUL: Well, first of all, Wolf, I thought I was supposed to get a honeymoon. When does my honeymoon start, you know, after my victory?
WOLF BLITZER: No such thing in politics, Dr. Paul.
RAND PAUL: No such thing, I think you’re right. I think what troubles me is that the news cycle has gotten out of control. I mean, for several hours on a major news network yesterday, they reported repeatedly that I was for repealing the Civil Rights Act. That is not only not true, never been my position, but is an out-and-out lie, and they repeated it all day long. It started with my Democrat opponent asserting this, but has never been my position.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on Rand Paul’s comments on the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re joined by two guests. Blair Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. She’s author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. She’s joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina. And from Chicago, we’re joined by Mike Ervin, a freelance journalist, longtime activist with the disability rights groups ADAPT.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in Raleigh with Professor Kelley. Explain your response to what Rand Paul was saying and the history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
BLAIR KELLEY: What concerns me is the notion that this legislation is meaningless, in terms of our contemporary society, and that this history is something that we should forget about or move past, and that the notion of this hard separation between public and private actually makes sense, in light of the lived experiences of African Americans at the time. To imagine a world where African Americans could just deal with public institutions and be excluded from private businesses that are open to the public, the white public, and yet cutting them out, was really profound.
Imagine traveling as an African American during the Jim Crow era. You would not able to stop for a restroom. You would not be able to find food to feed your kids. You might not be able to find lodging to stay overnight. And so, many African Americans had to seek out black institutions to help them as they traveled. They had to go to their local black college, where they were on that journey, and try and ask them for food and somewhere to stay. This was sort of central to their experience. So, if we can imagine that, American citizens didn’t have the freedom to travel as they wanted to, with dignity, respect, that they could not anticipate what kind of treatment they would get from place to place and day to day. Imagine raising children in that kind of context. Imagine trying to stay safe in that kind of context.
So, for me, for that history to be discounted as unimportant and not meaningful is really not a reflection of how horrible Jim Crow segregation actually was and how much we have to remember it and guard against having any kind of extension of discrimination or any sense that companies serving the public should be able to choose what part of the public they want to serve.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the battle over the '64 legislation, could you, especially for many viewers and listeners who maybe weren't alive at the time, talk about the — how intense was that battle? What was public opinion at the time with regard to the vote in Congress on this legislation?
BLAIR KELLEY: Well, I mean, much of what Rand Paul is arguing, that there needs to be the separation, was the conservative line at the time. It’s not dramatically different. In fact, his argument that private business owners should be able to determine whom they want to serve was the standard argument throughout the Jim Crow time period for excluding African Americans.
We don’t remember the degree to which segregationists at the time were actually quite couched in their language. They were worried about legal challenges. So they were trying to position themselves really strategically so that they could make an argument. And so, what is eerie about Rand Paul’s argument — in the past days, I see he’s walked back from it — is that it echoes an earlier time period in really distinct ways and the divisions that were there in 1964.
And I think we also don’t recall the degree to which this was controversial. We’ll remember that this is the reason why the March on Washington was called, to put pressure on DC to pass a civil rights legislation that would really break this barrier of public accommodations, of being able to sit at lunch counters. The sit-in movement of 1960 sparks this really mass movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s also was talking about a similar dynamic. And so, this is a central fight, a really basic fight, for African Americans, as sort of the front door of civil rights. And so, for it to be complicated now is problematic.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to also bring in Mike Ervin, freelance journalist, longtime activist with the disability rights group ADAPT. He’s in Chicago. Mike, this also deals with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Can you respond to Rand Paul, the new Kentucky Republican Senate nominee, and talk about how the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, got passed?
MIKE ERVIN: Sure. Well, first of all, the statement that he made was typical, shallow Tea Party stuff. Saying something like, "If you have a two-floor business and you hire someone that uses a wheelchair" — like me — "that the federal government would automatically come in and demand that you install a $100,000 elevator," is ridiculous, because what the ADA says is that you have to make reasonable or programmatic accommodation. You don’t have to go through an undue hardship. So the kind of solution that he came up with, of giving somebody a first-floor office, would be exactly the kind of thing that the ADA would say that you should do, and it would be within the law. So, to go around making people think that the ADA is this big boogeyman that makes people — makes private businesses go through these huge changes, they’re going to bankrupt them just to accommodate someone in a wheelchair like me, is either ill-informed or purposely misleading. And again, it sounds like typical Tea Party stuff to me.
And the ADA, you know, was passed — signed in 1990, and the legislative history of it cited congressional hearings that cited pervasive discrimination in all walks of life against folks with disability, both in public and private facilities and programs. And it wasn’t like we just decided one morning to pass this nice law. It was done because people like me ran into the same problems that we just heard about from your other guest, where we didn’t know from day to day what we were going to run into, whether you’d be able to access public transit or whether you’d be able to get into a certain building, whether it be public or private. We had many of the same segregation and discrimination problems that we heard about. So it’s a law that’s very dear to us and has made a lot of real difference in our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk specifically about how? How has your life changed in the last twenty years, Mike?
MIKE ERVIN: Sure. Well, for someone in the middle of a city like me, I mean, the first thing you can point to is transportation, both public and private. In 1992, we had our very first accessible, wheelchair-accessible, bus in Chicago. Up until that point, I couldn’t ride public transit at all. There were no taxicabs that were wheelchair-accessible in Chicago at the time. Now there are about a hundred of them. I still can’t get on all the public transit systems here in Chicago, because some of them are old and haven’t been made accessible yet under the ADA.
And then, of course, there are court decisions, namely the one Olmstead decision, that has said that states are violating the ADA when they lock people with disabilities up in institutions, when they could be accommodating them by giving them services in their homes. And that is a monumental decision. That’s our Brown v. Board of Education.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Mike, what about this issue that Rand Paul has tried to raise of the separation between outlawing discrimination in public institutions versus in private firms, the viewpoint that the less government, the better, and this is an intrusion of government into private individuals and private businesses?
MIKE ERVIN: Yeah, well, basically, then, what he’s saying is that every private business has the right to say, "We don’t want you in here. Get out of here." And we’re getting back to the old lunch counter problem again. Yeah, I think that most people would disagree with him quite significantly on that, you know, that little steps, which are often all that is required — little steps should — no affirmative steps should have to be taken at all to make it possible for someone who uses a wheelchair or someone who uses a service animal.
Should a private sort of person who owns a restaurant or a store be able to say to a blind person who needs a dog to get around, "Get out of here; no dogs allowed in my store or my restaurant," and thus tell the blind person they can’t come in? Are those the kinds of things that he’s talking about? Should the cab company that makes money operating in my city be able to say, "We don’t want to have any wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and we don’t care if you get around just like everybody else"? Is that really the kind of thing that he’s talking about?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another issue, that of Rand Paul’s former communications director, Christopher Hightower. He resigned in December after his MySpace page was found to have a post declaring "Happy N-Word Day" — but it used the full word — and showing a photo of a lynching around the time of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The MySpace post was first reported by the Kentucky-based blog, Barefoot and Progressive. Joe Sonka is the editor of the blog. He’s joining us via Skype from Lexington, Kentucky.
Joe, talk about what you discovered back — was it in December that you broke this story?
JOE SONKA: [inaudible]
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you exposed. Joe, we’re trying to —-
JOE SONKA: What’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: Joe, we’re just trying -—
JOE SONKA: Hello?
AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Joe. Tell us what you exposed in December.
Well, we’ll try to get Joe on the telephone so that he can explain what it is he exposed. But I want to go back to another clip.
JOE SONKA: Yes, hello?
AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Joe. Can you hear us?
JOE SONKA: I’m here.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you hear us?
Alright, let me turn back to an earlier clip, one more that we would like to play: Rand Paul and his interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Here, he likens forcing desegregation of lunch counters to the government forcing a business to allow patrons to carry guns.
RAND PAUL: Right now, many states and many gun organizations are saying they have a right to carry a gun in a public restaurant, because a public restaurant is not a private restaurant, therefore they have a right to carry their gun in there, and that the restaurant has no right to have rules to their restaurant. So you see how this could be turned on many liberal observers who want to excoriate me on this. Then, to be consistent, they’d have to say, "Oh, well, yes, absolutely, you’ve got your right to carry your gun anywhere, because it’s a public place." So, you see, when you blur the distinction between public and private, there are problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Blair Kelley, your response?
BLAIR KELLEY: Black people aren’t guns, so that doesn’t work for me. The notion that carrying a weapon into a public space is equivalent to including all citizens, visitors in a community, within a restaurant or a hotel, is a very different thing. People are patrons and, until they show themselves to be anything different, should be included and respected. I think he’s smearing the two different issues in the attempt to make a false equivalent.
Another way he was doing that in that interview was to talk about the First Amendment rights of business owners, saying that he defended the right of people to say abhorrent things, and so that people interested in segregating their businesses that they owned should be able to say things that were bad. But free speech isn’t action. And so, including people in a store where you’re in a town square, where you might have been receiving some tax breaks and incentives for opening your business, where the sidewalk and the street are maintained collectively, means that you should open that business, if it’s not a private club, to the entire public. And this is a standard, and this is a moral standard that we’ve come to because of the experiences of segregation and Jim Crow segregation for a very long time and black Americans had to deal with for decades. And so, I think that sort of making this hypothetical kind of argument isn’t necessarily helpful, when this law was derived from people’s real-life experiences.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe Sonka, we have you on the line now, editor of the Kentucky-based blog Barefoot and Progressive. Talk about what you found in December.
JOE SONKA: In December, Rand Paul’s spokesperson, Christopher Hightower — myself and a fellow blogger in Kentucky, Jake Payne at Page One Kentucky, we found his — on his MySpace page, for well over a year, someone had posted a picture on Martin Luther King Day, and it said, "Happy N-Word Day." And it had a picture of a black man [inaudible] lynched. And he left it up on [inaudible] page for well over a year. He was [inaudible] an active page that he used [inaudible]. And within about twelve hours of that post, he eventually resigned. But Rand Paul defended him afterward and said that he didn’t think that he was a racist.
AMY GOODMAN: But he was forced to resign.
JOE SONKA: And what’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: And he was forced to resign.
JOE SONKA: Yes, yes, he was forced to resign.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Were you able to talk with Hightower at all about the reasons for maintaining the post?
JOE SONKA: Well, he, first of all, denied it. And when the Courier-Journal asked him, he denied that it was him. And eventually, you know, the evidence was overwhelming that it was him. And he never commented to the press on why that was up on his page. He told — he originally told the press that he’d never had a MySpace page, but evidence was overwhelming that it was his.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Joe Sonka, we want to thank you for being with us, editor of the Kentucky-based blog Barefoot and Progressive. Last question: the image that he had on the page, the image of the lynching and the "Happy N-Day," did Rand Paul say anything about this? And how long had Christopher Hightower been his spokesperson when he was running for Senate, before he won?
JOE SONKA: He had been his spokesperson since the beginning. Rand Paul, again, said that he found the image abhorrent, but he still didn’t think that he was a racist and still defended his character. But, you know, he spoke out against the image, but, you know, didn’t find him — didn’t find that he was racist, though.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, when you hear this, Professor Kelley, your thoughts?
BLAIR KELLEY: I think it’s important for us to remember that it’s impossible, almost, for us to figure out if someone is actually a racist. And it may not even be particularly relevant, exactly what is in — deep in their heart and that goes unspoken. What is relevant, as a policymaker, are the kinds of actions you take and the approach you would have to the law and the empathy you would have to your constituents, all of your constituents. If he becomes a senator, he will represent not only those who voted for him, but those who did not. And so, this effort to be respectful and thoughtful about how others will receive his actions is really quite important. Whether or not we can ever discern whether or not someone is racist — it’s not a word I use regularly. It’s difficult. It makes us get down to a very personal level, when we need to think in more structural and systemic terms about the ways in which lawmakers have to behave.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, a question to Mike Ervin. We’re talking about Rand Paul, but it wasn’t easy for you to get in this morning to do this show today, and we very much appreciate you coming into the studio. On the issue of President Obama and disability rights, what’s your assessment?
MIKE ERVIN: General disappointment. On some things, he has not taken any leadership at all. Lately, they’re starting to get a little more aggressive. The Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Justice is starting to file lawsuits against states that are seeking to get people out of large institutions and have money shifted to supporting people in their homes, which is a very good thing. But on the law, there’s a law that’s been introduced, a bill, called the Community Choice Act, which would do that same thing, which would change the bias that exists in Medicaid law that puts people in institutions in the first place. As a senator here in Illinois, he was a reluctant sponsor. When we approached him as president, he did not want any part of it at all. He didn’t want to hear what we had to say. And, in fact, people were arrested outside the White House when we tried to insist that he support this law. So he’s probably been, in our eyes, what he has been in the eyes of most progressives, which is a pretty big disappointment, with some mild to semi-significant improvements.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us. Mike Ervin, freelance journalist, longtime activist with the disability rights group ADAPT. Thank you very much to Blair Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. And thanks very much to Joe Sonka, joining us from the blog in Kentucky, Barefoot and Progressive.