The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the strongest, most comprehensive legislation enacted to bring racial, ethnic, and sexual equality to schools, voting booths, and businesses. The most notable provision of the law was the requirement that businesses serving the public, called public accommodations, must be desegregated. Almost everyone in our country recognizes the importance of that law, and few would seek to reverse its effect on American society.
Fifty years ago, as a teenager, I was fortunate to work as a messenger page in the Senate when the Civil Right Act was passed, and I listened intently and closely as the bill was debated in the chamber. It gave me a chance to reflect on one of the central questions of our country. I recall opponents, mostly southern segregationists, some of them quite eloquent, arguing that the public accommodations provision was un-American, unconstitutional, and an infringement of individual rights. Since 1875, the Supreme Court had maintained, and most people had not questioned, that owners of businesses serving the public could run those businesses as they pleased. The inn was the province of the innkeeper. The bus was the property of the bus company. The proprietors went into business to offer the services they wanted to offer to the people they chose to serve. With the landmark Civil Rights law, the argument that won decisively in Congress was that it was the segregationist attitude that was un-American and probably unconstitutional. The prerogatives of the individual proprietors of public accommodations, even if they were very local and not interstate businesses, were secondary to the public good. This was hugely important. In our on-going effort to form a more perfect union of diverse states and diverse peoples, the public good must be observed, and public accommodations cannot discriminate against any ordinary citizens in good standing, even against the personal preferences of the owners. Although many remnants of our country's racist past remain to be overcome, it is remarkable that the Civil Rights Law is thoroughly integrated into our jurisprudence and our lives. It was, I think, a powerful reaffirmation of how and why we pulled together as a country. We are stronger, fairer, and more ethical as a result. However, that was not clear to everyone at the time of the 1964 debate.
In light of last week's decisions from the Supreme Court, I wonder if soon it will be recognized that, for example, the public good is served when any and all women have complete healthcare coverage and are not denied by the personal preferences of a business owner, and when workers are given equal standing to bargain collectively with business owners. It certainly could be argued, and has been argued, that business proprietors can run their businesses as they chose. The Public Accommodations Act is one strong example that the public good, at least sometimes, trumps.
Visiting the Capitol
Last week, I attended a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda commemorating Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. There the sculptured bust of Rev. King faced directly across from the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Nearby is a statue of Rosa Parks, sitting as she famously sat on the Montgomery bus. The collection of art and sculpture at the Capitol represents notable events and individuals from American history, and includes statues of two distinguished New Jerseyans: Richard Stockton and Philip Kearny. Stockton was notable as a Declaration of Independence signer, and a fresco in the Capitol Rotunda depicts that moment on June 28, 1776, when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Second Constitutional Congress. Philip Kearny had a rich military career, serving as a brigadier general with the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, and lost his life at the Battle of Chantilly, Virginia, in 1862. A portion of the Frieze of American History, also in the Rotunda, pays tribute in "Peace at the End of the Civil War."
The Capitol reminds us of the rich history of this great nation, and it is this history that should continue to guide us as we continue our endless journey to form a more perfect union.
You can learn more about the art and architecture of the Capitol here. You can also learn more about the history at the United States Capitol Historical Society’s website. However, the Capitol is best experienced in person with a guided tour. My office can assist with booking tours of the White House, Capitol Building, and other D.C. sites, and you can schedule a tour by visiting my website. I recommend the Capitol tour most of all....