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On civil rights, conservatives always wrong

This is for those who think I forgot the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But first, let me tell you why I respect former Sen. Bob Dole. During his last campaign for the presidency, he spoke at a black journalists convention where he was politely, though not enthusiastically, received. Mr. Dole acknowledged that the audience had reason for reserve, given that he's a conservative Republican, and conservative Republicans have historically shown little regard for the concerns of black people. He asked for their support anyway and promised that, if given a chance, he would improve that sorry record.

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Mr. Dole never got that chance, but I've always admired him for the moral courage it took to come before that audience and say what everyone knows, but some of us don't have the guts to admit.

Which brings me back to the Civil Rights Act. In response to a reader's question, I wrote recently that black voters do not support the Republican Party because conservatives have never supported them. Dozens of you challenged that. You sent e-mails asking how I square that judgment with the fact that the Civil Rights Act had significant GOP support.

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In a word: easily. See, I never said Republicans have never supported black people. I said that "conservatives" - "whether you're talking Democrats of the 19th and early 20th centuries or Republicans now" - never have. Yes, these days, Republican equals conservative. But back in the era of the act, there existed a creature - it seems mythical as the kraken these days - called the moderate Republican.

That's who lent support to black people. But social conservatives of whatever party? Not so much. The Civil Rights Act bears that out. About 100 of the 126 "nay" votes in the final House tally were cast by representatives from that foundry of conservatism, the South. This would include Rep. Thomas G. Abernethy of Mississippi, who said the act granted "dictatorial, Gestapo-like" power to the government.

Thankfully, 289 lawmakers stood up for the principle of equality. Know how many were from the conservative South? Twenty-one.

So, with all due respect to my correspondents, what we have here is one of the older rhetorical tricks in the book: If you can't refute what the person said, pretend he said something else and refute that.

They are interested in having an argument about Republicans vs. Democrats. I'm not. Those are just brand names, insignificant except insofar as they convey ideology. As noted, the Republican brand once included moderates; Democrats were the more socially conservative party. That changed, largely as a result of Lyndon Johnson's support for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Angered by this affirmation of democratic principles, Democratic conservatives fled their party in droves, running to a GOP that welcomed them with open arms.

President Johnson is said to have foreseen that outcome even as he signed the bill. "We have lost the South for a generation," he reportedly said.

These days, the GOP is so thoroughly dominated by conservatism that a rare moderate such as Sen. John McCain is regarded with wariness and hostility by the party faithful.

Credit where it's due: I respect social conservatives for pushing the issue of fatherless families into the mainstream when many of us didn't want to talk about it. But on issues of human rights, they have consistently been wrong. They were wrong on women's rights. History will someday show they have been wrong on gay rights. And yes, where blacks are concerned, I repeat: conservatives - of whatever party - have been consistently, repeatedly, stubbornly wrong.

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The fact that no one has refuted that judgment strongly suggests that no one can.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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