Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Rand Paul on William Lloyd Garrison and Segregation

with 12 comments

By Wiz

A couple of days ago Rand Paul had his balls surgically removed by Rachel Maddow on her show, concerning the issue of whether or not private businesses have the right to discriminate. Watch it below, if you haven’t at one of the ten million places that already linked to it.

Particularly obnoxious, to me at least, was when Paul mangled the history of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Here is the relevant part:

PAUL: You know, one interesting historical tidbit, one of my favorite historical characters is William Lloyd Garrison. And one of the interesting things about desegregation and putting people together, do you know when it happened in Boston?
MADDOW: What do you mean, the desegregation? In general?
PAUL: You know when we got — you know, when we got rid of the Jim Crow laws and when we got rid of segregation and a lot of the abhorrent practices in the South, do you know when we got rid of it in Boston?
MADDOW: I — why don’t you tell me what you`re getting at?
PAUL: Well, it was in 1840. So I think it is sort of a stain on the history of America that 120 years to desegregate the South.
But William Lloyd Garrison was a champion and abolitionist who wrote about freeing the slaves back in the 1810s, ’20s and ’30s and labored in obscurity (ph) to do this. He was flagged, put in jails. He was with Frederick Douglass being thrown off trains.
But, you know, they desegregated transportation in Boston in 1840, and I think that was an impressive and amazing thing. But also points out the sadness that it took us 120 years to desegregate the South. And a lot of that was institutional racism was absolutely wrong and something that I absolutely oppose.

Paul’s history is, well let’s say, a bit shaky here. His point, I guess, is that segregation ended in Boston because Garrison changed public opinion, rather than through government action. This is not accurate for reasons that are very relevant for the debate about libertarianism.

First of all, the low hanging fruit: This is picky, perhaps, but William Lloyd Garrison started abolitionist agitation in 1831, 1829 if you count his speech at Park Street Church, but most historians would say 1831, when he founded The Liberator. So, Paul fails on the dates when he claims Garrison started in 1810s.

Second, segregation did not end in 1840s in Boston. Perhaps Paul means the segregation of the railroads, which the abolitionists did largely achieve in the 1840s in Massachusetts. But the Public School system was not desegregated until 1855, Harvard did not graduate an African-American until 1870, and many churches, theaters, lecture-halls, and other public institutions remained segregated throughout the period. The leading scholars on Black Boston write: “In antebellum Boston, blacks were segregated into a few highly concentrated areas of the city, restricted to Jim Crow accommodations on public transportation, isolated in schools that were rapidly deteriorating, and scholastically inferior, excluded from juries, and seated apart in white churches, lecture halls, and places of entertainment.” (Horton and Horton 73)

Here, for instance, is a quote from The Liberator, Dec 12, 1853: “Rev. Theodore Parker administered, in a recent Sunday discourse, a well-deserved rebuke of the spirit of caste, which in the Puritan city is exhibited towards that portion of God’s heritage whose skins are colored unlike the majority; and for an illustration, referred to the concerts of Monsier Julian, at Music Hall, from one of which respectable colored persons had been excluded.”

Charlotte Forten, a black feminist, keep a meticulous journal throughout the 1850s and 1860s. A relevant entry from September 1854:

“I have suffered much today,- my friends, Mrs. P and her daughters were refused admission to the Museum, after having tickets given them, solely on account of their complexion. Insulting language was used to them.—Of course they felt and exhibited deep, bitter indignation; but of what avail was it? None, but to exit the ridicule of those contemptible creatures, miserable doughfaces who do not deserve the name of men. I will not attempt to write more.—No words can express my feelings, but these cruel wrongs cannot be much longer endured. A day of retribution must comes. God grant that it will come very soon! (Forten 98)

The point, of course, is that moral suasion and consumer choices—Rand Paul’s solution to segregation—did not work. Let me repeat. Non-state consumer action did not desegregate all public facilities in Massachusetts. Abolitionist pressure did convince some theaters, a number of railroads, and other companies to let in African-Americans. But, by any standard, segregation, but de facto and de jure, remained a fact in Boston.

Which is why—you guessed it—abolitionists and their allies turned to the government. First the State Government, and then the Federal Government. Wendell Phillips—Garrison’s close ally—testified in front of the Massachusetts legislature in 1841, on the issue of Railroad Desegregation (the abolitionists began a boycott campaign only after the State Government failed to act on the issue). This is a description of the event from his biography:

Privately owned railroads received “special privileges and franchises” from the state, he argued. The state, therefore had the right and the duty to make these enterprises treat all citizens as equals. “These corporations are public servants,” Phillips maintained,” and therefore bound to serve in accordance with the laws of the commonwealth,” which had been designed “to secure the rights of all the people.”…Since law, according to Phillips, must insure the public’s good above all else, legislators should override the private choices of the segregationists…. As Phillips had made clear during this contest, however, he now equated racial equality with the public’s good and insisted that positive law must prevent an individual’s discriminatory use of private property.” (Brewer p. 98-99)

No politician was as associated with the abolitionist legacy as Charles Sumner. Sumner devoted the last of his life to passing a Civil Rights Bill that would, in the words of Eric Foner “Guarantee all citizens equal access to public accommodations, common carriers, public schools, churches, cemeteries, and jury service.” (504) As he died, Sumner whispered to a visitor “you must take care of the civil rights bill… don’t let it fail.” (533) But fail it did, shot down by compromises in the Senate, and then a Supreme Court, and so segregation lasted, in much of America, for another 100 years.

In case the point isn’t obvious, Rand Paul’s idea of how to fight segregation and racism is simply nonsense. The power of privately owned business, institutions, and individuals is too great to be fought simply by consumer choices and moral suasion.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 21, 2010 at 22:56

12 Responses

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  1. What’s especially interesting is that this libertarian, who presumably, like most libertarians, is obsessed with literal constitutionalism, claims as his favourite historical figure someone who denounced the constitution as a pro-slavery document!


    May 22, 2010 at 10:38

  2. As to Boston, don’t forget that its beloved Red Sox were segregated until, if memory serves, 1959, though I believe it was public shaming that finally brought Pumpsie Green to the majors.


    May 23, 2010 at 16:44

  3. Possibly pointing out the obvious: The government of the US fought a war to end slavery and racial discrimination. Without that war, we would have racial discrimination still today, accompanied by de facto slavery in the south. The only thing that killed “share-cropping” aka serfdom in the South was the ability of the ex-slaves to flee north to freedom after the Civil War, which they did in large numbers. Paul is simply wrong, and we must all say it over and over again until everyone gets the message.


    June 6, 2010 at 15:46

  4. The biggest fail point in Rand’s use of Garrison is the fact that Garrison was born in 1805. He had no legal rights as a mere teenager in the early 1800s and anything he might have written or said would have borne no weight with anyone in the political venue. (Even if he participated in any sort of demonstrations and protests, he wouldn’t have had any influence.)


    June 6, 2010 at 15:55

  5. Nice blog. Would like to see you do an update about Randy Paul’s latest oped where he compares himself and his “views” to that of Marin Luther King, Jr.

    I’ll add to your post that not only did “Non-state consumer action” not desegregate all public facilities in Massachusetts. It didn’t do it anywhere. No where in America did non governmental interference create a fully desegregated society. What it did do was create a Jim Crow South and a quasi segregated North. Randy’s views don’t merely show an ignorance of history. It creates a whole other alternative universe.


    June 7, 2010 at 15:11

  6. […] For example, I am opposed to the government telling restaurant owners that they cannot allow smoking in their establishments. I believe we as consumers can choose whether to patronize a smoke-filled restaurant or do business with a smoke-free option. Think about it — this overreach is now extending to mandates about fat and calorie counts in menus. Do we really need the government managing all of these decisions for us? —————————————————————————————————————————————— Ph.D. Octopus notes that […]

  7. […] Additional: Ph.D. Octopus explains how Paul gets the history wrong on William Lloyd Garrison. […]

  8. […] arrangement ever made by men.” I’ve already written about why its nonsense to think abolitionists were modern libertarians. Garrison did not support Rand’s beloved […]

  9. There is a benefit to making racist action legal– we could identify the racists. Or rather the racists would self-identify. Then we right-libertarians wouldnt have to try and defend ourselves against conspiratorial racism accusations. Then the debate could focus on why a governmental structure based on individual rights increases the overall wealth of society. Granted, racism would appear again, but wouldnt you rather know which businesses were run by racists and give your money to a non-racist?


    June 12, 2010 at 23:46

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