The Selma Analogy

By Reno, R. R. | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Selma Analogy

Reno, R. R., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

It's easy to see why gay activists invoke the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s, and not just because it's a handy way to take the moral high ground. It puts a large body of legal sanctions, an expansive bureaucratic power, and a well-established tradition of social censure behind the goals of sexual liberation.

Last summer, New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a speech in advance of the close vote in the New York state legislature that decided that men have a right to marry men and women women. He described the fight for same-sex marriage as "the great civil-rights issue of our times." He then went on to issue the threats latent in the analogy: "On matters of freedom and equality, history has not remembered obstructionists kindly. Not on abolition. Not on women's suffrage. Not on workers' rights. Not on civil rights. And it will be no different on marriage rights."

It's a chilling warning, one meant to intimidate. History has been not only unkind in memory, but also highly punitive in fact. The civil-rights movement set in motion what has been undoubtedly the most extensive and pervasive expansion of government power over society. It was to American culture what the New Deal was to the economy.

Responding to entrenched and systemic racial discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not just dismantle Jim Crow as a legal regime in the South. It prohibited racial discrimination in nearly all aspects of American economic and social life. Along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent Supreme Court decisions, this seminal legislation created an energetic bureaucracy and expansive body of law that sought to stamp out racial discrimination.

Conservative libertarian and presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater notoriously voted against the Civil Rights Act (something he later said he regretted doing). Southern states had voting laws that effectively disenfranchised blacks, as well as an elaborate legal apparatus that enforced discrimination in everything from education to courthouse bathrooms. Goldwater claimed to be in favor of using the power of the federal government to overturn these forms of state-sponsored discrimination. But he insisted that trying to prohibit discrimination in employment and public accommodations empowered the government to interpose itself into the everyday lives of citizens to an unprecedented degree. With his characteristic bluntness, he warned that a government mandate to prevent and correct discrimination at all levels of society would require a "police state."

I certainly hope that if I had been in Goldwater's position I would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. And yet, however misaligned his moral compass was in 1964 and hyperbolic his description of the consequences of the translation of the goals of racial equality into government policy, he wasn't entirely wrong about the implications of the legislative and courtroom victories of the civil-rights movement.

The various implementations of the broad antidiscrimination mandate were often heavy-handed. For example, the Nixon administration formulated the "Philadelphia Plan," which imposed hiring quotas on unions, an initiative designed as much to punish Nixon's union adversaries as to promote racial equality. Mandatory school-busing programs were implemented, often against a great deal of local resistance. Corporations and universities put in place quotas and special hiring programs.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the legal and bureaucratic machinery for securing civil rights for blacks was refined and extended. The courts struck down the use of strict quotas in most cases, and in their place emerged a powerful and pervasive system of employment regulations, legal sanctions, and bureaucratic review. Gender equality was added to the antidiscrimination mandate, as well as legal protection against discrimination based on disability. The details of this multifaceted system are complex and continue to be litigated in the courts.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Selma Analogy


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?