I’ve been reading about the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which, in its original form, banned racial segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels (though by the time it was passed, almost all of the content had been stripped out). There’s a part of this history that makes no sense to me and I’m wondering if someone can explain it.
Remember first that this was at a time when several southern states enforced laws that mandated segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels.
It was also at a time when, as I understand it, the outcome of the legislative battle was very much in doubt, so that each side feared the worst and was eager to compromise. Supporters weren’t sure they could beat a filibuster, which meant the bill might never even come to a vote. Opponents feared a filibuster might be beaten and the bill passed without amendments.
Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader of the Senate, wanted above all else to avoid a major fight, and was eager to facilitate any compromise both sides could agree on. He floated several compromise proposals and actively solicited others, from legislators, attorneys, and everyone else he could think of.
In Master of the Senate, the third in his three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro describes a vast number of compromises that failed before the passage of the final successful compromise.
Now here’s what astonishes me: Here you had all these lawyers and politicians, desperately trying to find a creative compromise — and yet, as far as I can tell, nobody ever proposed the compromise that seems (to me) to be obvious. The Republicans and northerners wanted mandatory integration. The southerners wanted to maintain mandatory segregation. The obvious compromise, I should think, would be to have neither — the northerners agree not to pass a federal law, and the southerners agree to repeal some state laws.
It seems to me that even if the southerners had wanted to reject this proposal, they’d painted themselves into a rhetorical corner that would have made it difficult. For years, they’d been arguing against mandatory integration on the grounds that no government has a right to tell a man who he must hire, or to whom he must serve a meal. It would have been easy for the northeners to say “Okay. We’re prepared to agree with that. But of course, on the very same principle, no government has a right to tell a man who he can’t hire, or to whom he can’t serve a meal.”
This compromise would have had quite a few advantages, not the least of which is that it was actually good policy, not just good politics. My guess is that it would have led to substantial integration pretty quickly, because there was money to be made from serving black customers. (Presumably that’s why the south thought the Jim Crow laws were necessary in the first place.)
I can imagine several reasons why this compromise might not have succeeded. (For example, how exactly is the compromise enforced?) But I’m having a lot more difficulty imagining why it was never even floated. Compromise proposals were being floated left and right, and Johnson was desperately begging people to come up with more. How did this one never even come up?
Edited to add: On the other hand, it’s not true that the compromise would have required the cooperation of state legislatures. The Feds were prepared to pass a mandatory integration bill, which means they believed they had the power to pass legislation that would supersede state laws. Why not use that same power to pass a “no mandatory segregation” bill?
Were people so thoroughly blinded by the prejudice that it takes a law — as opposed to the absence of a law — to solve a problem? Or is there more to this history (or more to the underlying game theory) than I’m aware of?