The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education is one of the great landmarks of American history. It is also a good example of the fact that the law is not about the law. Maybe one in 500 college students ever has read the decision, and probably very few Americans could tell you much about the legal questions involved in Brown, but the moral question at the heart of the case — whether an apartheid regime of “separate but [formally] equal” would be allowed to stand in these United States — is well understood. It was well understood by the Court at the time, too: Remarkably, that contentious issue was settled in a unanimous decision. Even Hugo Black, a member of the Ku Klux Klan named to the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt, was on board — but, in all fairness, Justice Black had not joined the Klan because he hated blacks: He had joined the Klan because he hated Catholics.
In any case, unanimity was the order of the day. Justice Felix Frankfurter thought that a unanimous decision was vital, even though a mere majority decision would have been just as legally binding — a fact to keep in mind the next time somebody tries to convince you that the Court is something other than a political body. It was not enough to have a decision in favor of desegregation: The country needed a mandate against segregation. It was in all likelihood death that made that unanimity possible: Chief Justice Fred Vinson, appointed by Democrat Harry S. Truman, had been hostile to overturning segregation without an act of Congress calling expressly for that. He died before Brown was decided. His replacement, Earl Warren, appointed by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, was eager to repeal segregation: He had been involved in fighting segregation in the California schools for some years, and as governor had signed the repeal of the last of the state’s segregation statutes.
Brown could hardly have been more symbolic. Third-grader Linda Brown had to walk six blocks to the bus stop and then ride a bus for a mile to her all-black elementary school, while there was another elementary school — an all-white one — just seven blocks away. Had it not been for segregation, Miss Brown would have attended Sumner Elementary, named for the great abolitionist Republican; instead, she was consigned to a segregated school named for Virginia slaveholder and proto-Democrat James Monroe. Sumner Elementary would later be closed by Topeka’s authorities — as part of a legally mandated desegregation plan necessitated by post-Brown litigation.
When Earl Warren was working to undermine segregation in California, a number of his legal colleagues fanned out across the Southwest hoping to challenge segregation both in the courtroom and in the statehouses. We often forget that segregation was not for the most part something cooked up by wicked proprietors of theaters and restaurants (though there were those, too, to be sure), but was in the main something imposed on them by state and local governments. California had attempted to liberalize segregation by adopting a law making it voluntary, its enforcement optional. While that law would later be ruled unconstitutional, it was popular for a time as one possible model for letting a little daylight into the darkness of American race relations. One of the places that was tried was Phoenix.
Here, Barry Goldwater enters the story. Goldwater was a department-store proprietor and a member of the Phoenix city council. He was a very conservative Republican, something that was not at all at odds with his membership in the NAACP, which was, in the 1950s, an organization in which Republicans and conservatives still were very much welcome. The civil-rights community in Phoenix, such as it was, did not quite know what to make of Goldwater. It was already clear by then that he was to be a conservative’s conservative and a man skeptical of federal overreach; while he described himself as being unprejudiced on what was at the time referred to as “the race question,” the fact was that he did not talk much about it, at least in public. His family department stores were desegregated under his watch, though he was not known to hire blacks to work there. But when the Arizona legislature was considering making segregation voluntary in the public schools, Goldwater was lobbying for it behind the scenes. And, perhaps more important, he organized a group of well-known white conservative leaders to do so as well. He did so on the advice of his friend Lincoln Ragsdale.
Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale were the first couple of civil rights in Arizona at the time. Lincoln had joined the Tuskegee Airmen in 1944, but the worst injury he ever got during his time in the service was a near-lynching at the hands of a gang of Alabama police officers after he was insufficiently deferential to a white gas-station clerk. One of the cops had intended to kill him, but the others objected on the grounds that he was wearing a military uniform. (Alabama had a very strange sense of patriotism at the time.) Lincoln was kind of a bad-ass: When he and his wife moved into a white neighborhood in Phoenix, vandals painted the word “NIGGER” in two-foot-high letters on the front of his house. Rather than paint over it, Lincoln left it there for all to see: “I wanted to make sure that the white folks knew where the nigger lived,” he later explained. Neighbors offered to buy him out, sparing him and the neighborhood the friction of his presence. He stayed put. In his Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West, Matthew C. Whitaker writes that pulling over Lincoln Ragsdale’s Cadillac sedan to harass the driver was a “rite of passage” for the local police.
The Ragsdales worked with the NAACP and the Arizona Council for Civic Unity/Greater Phoenix Council for Civic Unity to fight segregation in restaurants, theaters, and other public places in Phoenix, but the schools were the biggest target. When Lincoln was working to raise money for the NAACP for a lawsuit to integrate the schools, he turned to every possible source he could think of, including the conservative city councilman Barry Goldwater. To his surprise, Goldwater responded with a large check. What surprised him further was that Goldwater became a personal friend and political colleague of the couple, a “great inspiration,” in Lincoln’s words. The Ragsdales, Lincoln said, became the people to whom Goldwater brought “questions about how we felt about certain things, and we’d try to give him a very honest appraisal of it.” Goldwater supported most of the civil-rights legislation that preceded the famous 1964 act, which he opposed as unconstitutional. But as Ragsdale points out in Race Work, he also “helped make Tuskegee airman Chappie James a four-star general while he was in the Senate,” funded the school-integration lawsuit, and raised money to keep the Urban League solvent when it was on the verge of dissolution.
But funding the lawsuit may have been the most important thing Goldwater did in his civil-rights career. As the historian Quintard Taylor of the University of Washington puts it: “Most historians characterize the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education as the death knell for de jure public school segregation. Yet a little-known legal victory by . . . the Arizona NAACP before the Arizona State Supreme Court in 1953 provided an important precedent for the ruling by the highest court in the land.” The NAACP had not been getting very far suing on behalf of black students, but it had made some progress with suits on behalf of Mexican-American students: A 1951 decision had outlawed segregating Hispanic students in the Tolleson School District, and Phoenix refused to comply with the new legal standard, so it was targeted for a lawsuit, too: one that would have ended racial discrimination against any student. At times, it must have seemed as if segregation in the schools was the cornerstone upon which all segregation stood. Lincoln Ragsdale thought so, and Taylor relates the sentiments of a Phoenix businessman who said: “As long as they attend separate schools, I won’t let them drink in my bar or sit in my theater.” With the support of Goldwater and others, the NAACP sponsored a series of rallies, protests, and fund-raising efforts in support of its litigation.
The NAACP’s federal lawsuit went nowhere. Federal judge David Ling, another FDR appointee, threw the case out on the grounds that the state courts rather than the federal courts were the proper channel for the challenge. New litigation was filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, seeking an end to racial discrimination against any student, and in 1953 — a year before Brown — segregation was declared illegal in Phoenix, with the presiding judge declaring: “A half century of intolerance is enough.” But Phoenix was the last major city in the west to end segregation of its own accord.
Barry Goldwater was not the most important opponent of racial segregation in Arizona, nor was he the most important champion of desegregating the public schools. What he was was on the right side: He put his money, his political clout, his business connections, and his reputation at the service of a cause that was right and just. While he was doing all that, his eventual nemesis, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a low-rent practitioner of the most crass sort of racist politics, was gutting anti-lynching laws and assuring Democrats that he would offer those “uppity Negroes” “just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”
For more than a century, the Republican party had been the party of civil rights, of abolition, of emancipation, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and the NAACP did not represent a break from that tradition, but a continuation of it.
It was a masterpiece of politics that allowed the Democrats to convince the electorate that they were the party of civil rights, that they had not until the day before yesterday been the party of lynching — even as that very same cabal of segregationist Democrats that had tried to block or gut every single significant piece of civil-rights legislation for decades, still led by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, remained comfortably entrenched in the Senate. To hear the story told today, you would almost think that it was the Republican Barry Goldwater, not the Democrat George Wallace, who stood in the schoolhouse door shouting “Segregation forever!” Goldwater believed that Title II and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were unconstitutional. How many Americans even know what is in those sections? About as many as understand the legal arguments surrounding Brown.
The problem for Republicans is that reclaiming their reputation as the party of civil rights requires a party leadership that wants to do so, because it cherishes that tradition and the values that it represents. It is not obvious that the Republican party has such leaders at the moment. The Party of Lincoln seems perfectly happy to be little more than the Party of the Chamber of Commerce. We should not turn our noses up at commerce — though Napoleon meant it as an insult, it was Britain’s glory to be “a nation of shopkeepers” — but it was not commerce alone that freed the slaves or built the nation.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May.