Classical Liberals in the
Civil Rights Era
EVENTS MOVED SWIFTLY during the civil rights era. Federal courts ruled various forms of segregation unconstitutional, thus infuriating southern conservatives. A Republican Senate refused to seat a notorious racist, and subsequent congresses passed Civil Rights Acts protecting voting rights and overturning segregation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower played an instrumental role in the desegregation of Washington, DC (1953), and the Brown v. Board decision (1954). Eisenhower antagonized southern Democrats with his judicial appointments, his support of civil rights legislation (watered down by Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson [D-TX]), and his order to send troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they enforced a federal court order desegregating public schools.1 Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved with the times to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill passed by a bipartisan congressional coalition over the opposition of southern Democrats. Yet racial freedom was too important to be left to politicians: the colorful baseball manager-owner Branch Rickey integrated the national pastime by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey’s speech explaining why he signed Robinson is an inspiring exposition of the classical liberal creed.
Classical liberals believed state-sponsored discrimination was a problem. Federal laws that struck down such discrimination were not only constitutional but appropriate for achieving individual freedom from state interference.2 White supremacy by government fiat violated classical liberal principles. On the other hand, classical liberals—Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and Barry Goldwater— opposed laws that limited an individual’s freedom of association or that required him (or her) to prefer one race over another.