It is useful to review what contemporary critics of the 1968 Black and student disturbances had to say:
The young historian John T. Taft declared: “The movement was instigated and sustained by black activists and the frustrations of the Vietnam War. … the ‘marginal elements’ that dominated American campuses in the sixties were often inspired by a sense of decency and compassion. But no movement succeeds because of the virtue of its motives. … In action, student radicals exhibited so much self-indulgent intolerance that their reforms were transitory, their allies were estranged, and their entire generation was diminished.”
Edward Levi of the University of Chicago thought that the young “are possessed by a sense of collective guilt … they have been denied the terrible but complete experiences of depressions and wars in which one had to prove oneself. … In another day, religious orders might have provided an avenue for service. Despite the Peace Corps. … insufficient avenues of this kind have been created.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. deplored identity politics. The civil rights movement was “for the negroes of the south … to the frustrations in the black ghettoes of the cities it offered nothing.” The decadent remnants of the civil rights movement remain addicted to rights talk and allergic to non-racial approaches ameliorating social conditions.
Louis Menand observed that “a style of thought that elevated compromise over confrontation did not have much appeal.” The Black Lives Matter demonstrations reflect nostalgia for abolitionism and the Southern civil rights movement, Blacks symbolizing righteousness and their opponents evil.
The 1964, 1965 and 1968 civil rights acts were succeeded by corrupt spawn: the second voting rights act with racial gerrymandering and extremist congresspersons and the Civil Rights Restoration Act placing college presidents under the thumb of bureaucrats.
President Obama’s eulogy of John Lewis demands debasement of the electoral franchise House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has flirted with, enfranchising 16-year-olds, calling to mind Bertolt Brecht’s satire on the East German government’s desire “To dissolve the people/And elect another.”
“The Negro,” George F. Kennan said in 1968, “is seen only as the helpless ward of public authority … to be held to no standards … all qualities on his part, whether laziness, dishonesty, irresponsibility or violence of behavior or their opposites are to be rewarded alike …
“The image is left only of a cold, heartless, cruel white society, encumbered by total guilt, facing a Negro population marked only by helplessness, and nobility of spirit … The American Negro is not going to be aided by an approach which treats him as object and not at all as subject. Nor will the nature of the problem itself ever be understood by an approach that treats it so exclusively as a moral one.”
What was and is absent from the 1968 and 2020 agenda are claims that cannot be cast as absolute moral rights enforceable by the judiciary. These might include:
• Reduction of credentialism;
• A revived Civilian Conservation Corps;
• An end to the union closed shop that excludes 90% of college graduates from the teaching force — elimination of mandated “mainstreaming” of disruptive students;
• Low-income savings incentives like those in Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong;
• Legalization of building-level employee associations as proposed by the TEAM act, vetoed by President Clinton;
• School drug testing;
• Decriminalization of marijuana and defunding of the underworld;
• An end to extreme abortion policies fostering sexual license;
• Building-level school boards as in Britain;
• Partial privatization of Social Security to allow inheritable accounts;
• Relief of younger workers from payroll taxation;
• Reasonable immigration restraints as urged by the Barbara Jordan Commission;
• Promotion of accessory apartments in owner-occupied dwellings;
• A Third Morrill Act providing short-term residential vocational colleges eliminating the union stranglehold on apprenticeships.
The only major advances for Blacks in 50 years came from the 1968 Fair Housing Act opening the suburbs and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act reducing births out of wedlock among teenage women.
The lesson is that of the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harlan, Justice Holmes, Judge Learned Hand, Justice Jackson and Chief Justice Roberts with their calls for color-blindness in legislation. No citizens are angels or can be darlings of the law; certainly no 13% minority. Nor is the government a universal almoner.
The most successful pieces of American legislation — the Northwest Ordinance, the general incorporation laws, the Homestead Act, the Morrill Acts, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the G.I. Bill — had as their root the concept of reciprocity of obligation. The sentimentalist supporters of BLM need to take heed of the lessons preached by the critics of 1968.
• George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of works on law and history, most recently “America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation” (Bloomsbury, 2019).