The Return of Libertarians in the Civil Rights Era

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In my continuing quest to discover libertarians concerned with Civil Rights in the twenty years following World War II I found Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader. The advertising copy tells us:

Race & Liberty in America explains the major themes of the anti-racist, classical liberal tradition of individual liberty and equality, demonstrating how it has inspired individuals to improve race relations in the United States. Rooted in the Judeo-Christian natural-law tradition, classical liberals have advocated freedom from governmental interference, abolition of prejudicial law, equality under a uniform rule of law guaranteed by the Constitution, and market-based entrepreneurial opportunity.

For those of you who aren’t up on all the libertarian lingo, “classical liberal” is a term preferred by some libertarians to, well, “libertarian.” Back in the New Deal era, many folks whom we would now classify as “libertarians” adopted the term to distinguish themselves from Roosevelt’s “liberals” who they thought distorted the real meaning of “liberalism.” The book’s introduction tells us the classical liberal tradition is informed by five core beliefs: Individual freedom, Christianity and Judaism, the Constitution, Colorblindness, and Capitalism. Of course many people hold these beliefs to some extent and apparently, one can completely reject some of them and still qualify as a “classical liberal” according to this book.  Thus the outspoken atheist is listed as a “classical liberal” (p. 185) and the book reprints Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech even though, “King was a social democrat who rejected the classical liberal vision of limited government” (p. 215). (This is just one of endless examples of the right attempting to claim King as one of their own despite ample evidence to the contrary).

In any case, if we are to believe the ad copy, here are the essential readings needed to understand the libertarian position on racism during the Civil Rights era. While it does little to change my mind that libertarians did little or nothing to aid the fight against segregation, it makes for interesting reading because it shows what weird histories libertarians tell about themselves in matters racial.

The relevant chapter presents a selection of readings from that time period from, as the chapter title indicates, “classical liberals.” Or does it? It is not clear at all how many works from the chapter are from “classical liberals” and how many are from people who simply expressed their anti-racism in the language of individualism. Going through a few selections may help illuminate this problem.

R.C. Hoiles, “Public Schools Breed Racism” (1947).

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The first selection of from newspaper publisher, Raymond C. Hoiles. While relatively unknown outside of libertarian circles, Hoiles was and is widely respected within them. Starting with the Santa Ana Register, Hoiles became a journalistic force to be reckoned with particularly in the American West with what became a string of newspapers he called the “Freedom Newspapers.” Staunchly libertarian, Hoiles editorialized against Japanese-American internment during World War II (a previous chapter of Race and Liberty contains one of these editorials).  In the present piece, Hoiles praises a federal court case, Mendez v. Westminister which held that the local school’s practice of segregating Mexican American children was unconstitutional. While praising the decision, Hoiles maintains the libertarian position that the real issue is public schooling itself, schools should be privatized immediately. Still, this is a good anti-racist piece by a someone who “classical liberal” bona fides are unquestionable.

But it is unclear that all the selections are from such figures or if the books’s editor chose pieces from anyone who happened to argue using the language of classical liberalism. As it happens, I wrote about the Mendez case in my book, Social Scientists for Social Justice. I wrote about Kenneth B. Clark and the other social scientists who worked with the NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund in the litigation that led to Brown v. Board of Education. These social scientists were tasked to prove to the court that separate education could never be equal. Race and Liberty‘s editor calls Brown a “mixed blessing” for classical liberals because “The unanimous Supreme Court decision struck down state-sponsored racial segregation but relied in doing so upon questionable social science rather than classical liberal principle” (p. 203). Mendez, however was based “on strict construction of California law and on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause” (p. 186). Against the decision itself, the book holds up the brief submitted by the American Jewish Congress brief in Brown v. Board of Education which is claimed “exemplified the classical liberal commitment to individual freedom” (p. 203). But the very social scientific argument that the editor decries was invented by the American Jewish Congress in the brief they filed in the appeal to the Mendez case. So the American Jewish Congress was hardly group of “classical liberals” it just happened to use that kind of language. But the dearth of true libertarians speaking out for civil rights means that the editor must have been forced to look elsewhere for material to fill the chapter.

Theodore Bilbo

Portrait of Theodore Bilbo

Theodore G. Bilbo (1877-1947) By Unknown – Library of Congress, Public Domain, Link

Senator Theodore G. Bilbo (D-MS) was one of the most racist politicians ever elected to national office. He was an avowed white supremacist, a Klansman, who regularly spoke of African Americans in the crudest possible terms. In 1946 he barely eked out re-election to the Senate. Many in the Senate were concerned by his race-baiting campaign and possible misuse of funds and bribery. A special committee was formed to investigate these charges and issued a report on Bilbo. According to Race and Liberty, “The Republican minority on a special U.S. Senate committee investigating charges of voter intimidation condemned Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), while the outgoing Democratic majority rationalized his vicious racism.” The book then presents excerpts from the minority reportt by Senators Bridges and Hickenlooper that does indeed condemn Bilbo. On the same topic, Bean presents selections from speeches by Republican Senator Robert Taft condemning Bilbo. In the book’s introduction, Bean tells us that Taft “unseated the Senate’s most vicious racist” (p. 2).

The book’s editor neglects to tell the reader that the special committee was the idea of Democratic Senator Glen H. Taylor. Nor did Taft and the Republicans “unseat” Bilbo. The whole mess in the Senate was tabled and delayed while Bilbo returned home for cancer surgery and he died a few months later. While the content of the selections may well be admirable, we could easily read them as simply an example of party politics over the seating of a Senator who died a few months later. Was Senator Bridges, co-author of the minority report a true “classical liberal” or just someone who wanted to attack someone in the opposing party? After all, when American Jews objected to the government’s Operation Paperclip which recruited Nazi scientists to the U.S, Bridges suggested they were due a “first-class cyanide fumigating job.” Not the words of a good classical liberal.

One other footnote to this tale. As one example of Bilbo’s racism was that ” Bilbo advocated congressional spending to deport black Americans to Africa, an argument he made in Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization (1947)” (p. 188). The case of “sending them back to Africa” was taken up by Willis Carto who was endorsed by libertarian hero, Robert LeFevre. Murray Rothbard read Carto’s publications and also endorsed a form of Bilbo’s racial separatism. The founder of the Institute for Humane Studies, F.A. Harper, was also a fan of Carto’s publications  and for this kind of racial separation. The only people keeping Bilbo’s dream in the postwar world were hardcore racists and libertarians.

Zora Neale Hurston

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist and folklorist. She was a literary genius with an enormous breadth to her published work.  She was also firmly against the New Deal and Brown v. Board of Education which put her at odds with much of the Civil Rights movement and most African Americans of her time. Race and Liberty reprints her essay “A Negro Voter Sizes Up Taft,” originally published in the reliably conservative Saturday Evening Post  which praised Senator Robert Taft during his unsuccessful attempt to get the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1952.

By the time Hurston published her essay on Taft, her career was in decline. Her conservatism had put her out of step with most African Americans of the time. In the nineteen-fifties Hurston sank into poverty and worked as a domestic servant. That a writer of her caliber was reduced to those circumstances is a stain on our country and on all of us. It is a particular stain on those classical liberals who now want to resurrect her political writings as representative of their views. Where were they in the nineteen-fifties when Hurston could not find financial support for her writing? If she embodied all that they stood for, why didn’t they publish her? Despite their claims of being marginal outsiders, libertarians enjoyed the financial largess of many multi-millionaires such as J. Howard Pew and the DuPonts. They had their own philanthropic organization, the Volker Fund. But Hurston, whom libertarians now delightedly enroll as one of their own, was left to fend for herself. Perhaps, given her beliefs, she would have refused such assistance but that she was largely ignored by classical liberals during her lifetime it seems especially troubling that they want to claim her now.


The chapter is a curious hodge-podge of minor figures of the nineteen-fifties who may well have been “classical liberals,” others who probably were not classical liberals but who the editor attempts to co-opt for the cause, MLK and the American Jewish Congress being the most obvious example. One selection is a piece by Branch Rickey on the drafting of Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. I don’t know enough about Rickey’s politics to know if he’s a real “classical liberal” but I know enough about Jackie Robinson to know that he was disgusted by Barry Goldwater who  Race and Liberty holds out as exemplifying the classical liberal position on race and civil rights.

The book claims to show how the the “Left fails to note the consistent classical liberal opposition to governmental racial discrimination in any form” (p. 226) but presents precious little evidence for that opposition (and there is plenty of evidence that classical liberalism created and maintained the racist social order). Moreover, the book re-emphasizes that racism is just fine if it on an individual (not governmental) level: “‘Forced’ racial equality in private places clashed with freedom of association” (p. 226). So we have Hoiles leveraging an integrationist decision into an argument abolishing public schools entirely. The book presents Milton Friedman making essentially the same argument.  In a system of privatized education, society would be powerless to stop segregated schooling apart from saying people asking “pretty please don’t be racist” and hoping fervently that the magic of the market will somehow bring justice to the world.

At the end of the day, that is the real problem. It is not just that classical liberals were nearly invisible during the civil rights movement, though they were. It is that they have nothing to contribute to the idea of racial justice beyond airy platitudes about “individualism” and “capitalism.” Many governmental programs have indeed made racism worse in the United States rather than better. Race and Liberty presents a selection from The Federal Bulldozer (1964) which argued that urban renewal programs exacerbated rather than relieved problems of the inner cities: “The federal urban renewal program conceived in 1949 had admirable goals. Unfortunately it has not and cannot achieve them. Only free enterprise can” (p. 225). If a government program does not achieve its goals, we can do something about it. If the market fails, the classical liberal believes we can do nothing except wait for it to correct itself amid their assurances that racial justice is inevitable due to the omnipotence of the market. Libertarians tell us that doing nothing is not only the best option for achieving racial justice, it is the only option. They teach us to be helpless. It is a dangerous message for anyone concerned with racial justice.

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1 thought on “The Return of Libertarians in the Civil Rights Era

  1. Pingback: Answering the Twittertarians | Fardels Bear

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