Fifty years ago today, a Greyhound bus full of civil rights activists left Atlanta, intent on testing the limits of American freedom. Those limits closed in around them like a flytrap just south of Anniston, Alabama, as they pulled into the Greyhound and Trailways terminal. A mob, some still dressed in their Sunday best, enforced the limits with sharp objects, metal pipes, chains. The tires on the bus were slashed, the bus itself was firebombed, and those riders barely escaped being burned alive (and later, a lynching).
The first bus of Freedom Riders had left 10 days earlier, groups of passengers out to see if Boynton v. Virginia really meant anything. The Supreme Court decision outlawed racial segregation in public transportation, in particular at terminals like that one south of Anniston. That day, May 14, 1961, would offer America another reminder of just how free a land it really was.
Yesterday Texas Congressman Ron Paul, proud libertarian and newly announced (third-time) Republican presidential contender, was a guest on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" when the subject of freedom came up, in a different context. Much as his son, now U.S. Senator Rand Paul, was offered nearly a year ago in an interview on TRMS, Congressman Paul was given the chance to hypothesize about how he would have voted on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
I believe property rights should be protected. Your, your right to be on TV is protected by property rights, because somebody owns that station. I can't walk into your station. So right of freedom of speech is protected by property. The right of your church is protected by property. So people should honor and protect it.
Rand Paul later changed his mind and said he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. Yesterday, his father kept digging. He blamed government for slavery, for segregation in the military and Jim Crow. If only libertarians were in charge, the congressman argued. Given the chance, libertarians would repeal laws allowing discrimination by the government, even as they let businesses continue to post "Whites Only" signs.
What Congressman Paul said yesterday didn't make me think that he is a racist at all. To the contrary: Ron Paul may have the most faith in human nature of anyone in recorded history. He said in the "Hardball" interview that businesses would be just stupid to discriminate:
... you don't understand that there would be zero signs up today saying something like that, and if they did, they'd be an idiot and they'd go out of business.
That may be true. But the Freedom Riders got on a bus after the discriminatory law they were fighting had been overturned by the Supreme Court. Would the Jim Crow laws Congressman Paul noted in the interview have retreated on their own, or did they need a push? Without the Civil Rights Act, could American society self-regulate away bigotry and discrimination, or are laws necessary, too? I'd argue the latter.
If the libertarians were in charge, how free would we be?