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The Ornery Observer
April 29, 2010

Manipulated History of the Civil Rights Movement
by Paul Gottfried

ELIZABETHTOWN, PA —In a recent syndicated column, National Review editor Richard Lowry informs us that “liberals” are guilty of identifying healthcare reform with a “victory as transcendent as that of the civil rights movement.”

Lowry considers this movement to be a “rare and marvelous thing.” He extols the “genius of Martin Luther King,” who spent his life teaching us to love each other. Lowry ends his encomium by contrasting the healthcare bill with the Christ-like purity of the civil rights protestors, who were concerned with “freedom and securing the most basic rights — to vote and to gain equal access to public accommodations.” Unlike this “mess cobbled together by an embattled, ideological congressional majority,” the civil rights movement and King “were catalyzed by sacrificial love.”

With due respect to Lowry’s inspirational moment, it may be argued that former civil rights activist John Lewis and other black Democrats are correct to view Obama’s presidency and his healthcare plan as extensions of the civil rights movement. Blacks are using what Lowry considers their “basic right” to endorse people and policies that appeal to them. Why would Lowry expect black voters to do anything else, for example, by seeking to cut rather than increase government social programs, which they think benefit them disproportionately? Certainly that was not the view of Martin Luther King, whose socialist economic views are a matter of record. Does Lowry really believe that King would have opposed Obama’s healthcare bill?

This is not Lowry’s first lapse into clumsy special pleading. On February 11, 2005, Lowry came up with another historical narrative tailored to present needs, when he compared Condoleezza Rice’s support for the Iraqi war to “the civil rights cause she supported as a girl in Birmingham, Alabama.” Lowry’s rhetorical flight had no perceptive effect on those whom he was seeking to persuade. Blacks are not especially keen on getting embroiled in foreign wars but overwhelmingly support healthcare and other domestic programs that the current administration is considering.

The “transcendent” moment in the 1960s that Lowry invokes was actually a transfer of power. Black voters have used their “basic right” to advance what they want, and while Lowry recounts this fact, he does so in a selective fashion. His “transcendent” moment does not take into account the scope and depth of the changes that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Lowry recalls the past in the way certain Frenchmen used to talk about their Revolution, by praising the storming of the Bastille and then treating the next 20 years of bloody history as anticlimactic. Why bother to discuss what does not fit one’s current issue? But historical processes have a tendency to go on and on, rather than end at the moment the narrator might wish.

Not content with the production of his civil rights movement, Lowry offered another piece of revisionist history on April 9. He depicted Mitt Romney, his preferred presidential candidate, as a “conservative Republican.” It seems that Romney just happened to have introduced government-controlled healthcare care in Massachusetts. That, of course, was when Romney was governor, and before he changed his views on social issues to make himself acceptable to those who fund Lowry’s magazine. Unfortunately, the Democrats have been tactless enough to bring up what Romney did as governor, and this indiscretion may hurt his run for the presidency. I have no idea why Romney’s record in the Massachusetts governorship is not a relevant political issue. But as someone who is not in Lowry’s circle, there is no reason I would know.

The problem with this manipulated history is its patent dishonesty. The civil rights movement led to monumental changes such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, together with the introduction of affirmative action programs and anti-discrimination laws for a wide range of designated minorities. While some people undoubtedly benefited from these changes, the end result has been to make limited, decentralized government more difficult for those of us who value it. What is widely seen as a positive thing also has its negative aspects.

Lowry could have made this point without manufacturing his own movement as a saintly, antiseptic alternative to what actually happened. He could have explained that, like most revolutions, the civil rights movement was a mixed bag. While it produced justice in some areas, it also brought other consequences with which we as a country will have to wrestle for centuries. The black vote has helped push our country leftward, by lending support to government initiatives for redistributing income and for controlling our social behavior and speech. But all of these trends have overtaken Europe, where they have not been sold as attempts to overcome racial discrimination, and so perhaps certain changes are simply in the nature of modern democracy. As for Lowry’s reconstruction of Romney’s political career, it might be best for him to recognize that he is dealing with damaged goods.

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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2010 by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. A version of this column has been published in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Newspapers. Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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