Why Rand Paul's views on civil rights are no surprise

How fast things can change. Just two days ago, Tea Party favorite Rand Paul was celebrating his stunning victory in Kentucky's primary to run as the GOP's candidate for U.S. Senate.

Now Rand is fending off questions about why, in two successive media interviews, he suggested that the Civil Rights Act went too far in telling private businesses in the South that they couldn't discriminate on the basis of race.

Both triumphant Democrats and dismayed Republicans have seized on Paul's statements as a typical scandal, responding with mixtures of shock and outrage.

But are Paul's statements and sentiments really all that surprising?

True, there's a certain disconnect when on the 50th anniversary of the famous civil rights sit-ins in places like Greensboro, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee -- protests which challenged the ability of owners of privately-owned public accommodations -- leading Congressional candidate argues such discrimination amounts to "free speech."

But the idea that the Civil Rights Act overstepped in its pursuit of guaranteeing racial equality in the South is hardly an alien idea to political right. In fact, in certain conservative circles -- especially the anti-government, libertarian wing Rand Paul represents -- it's practically an article of faith.

Consider Ronald Reagan, now part of the pantheon of Republican and conservative heroes. Reagan got his start in national politics stumping for Barry Goldwater, whose fierce anti-government views led him to view the Civil Rights Act as an attack on "the Southern way of life."

When Reagan made his own run for the presidency in 1976, he positioned himself as Goldwater's heir, picking up his first primary win in North Carolina on a platform stoking resentment of government intrusion in the South. In 1980, the Californian consciously launched his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- just miles from where three civil rights activists were killed in the 1960s.

Like Rand, Reagan insisted his views were anti-government and not pro-discrimination -- ignoring, of course, that in practical terms, opposing federal civil rights standards would ensure that discrimination persisted. As NPR noted in a 2004 retrospective:
Today it is hard to believe that Reagan had such success using the Civil Rights Act as a whipping boy. The Civil Rights Act is now so widely accepted that it doesn't attract controversy in any region of the country -- including the South.

But Reagan's campaign was only one sign that acceptance of the Civil Rights Act wasn't -- and isn't -- as broad and deep as many believe.

Another group which still rails against federal intrusions into the South like the Civil Rights Act is the Council of Conservative Citizens, a descendant of the segregationist White Citizen's Councils of the Jim Crow era.

The CCC opposes inter-racial marriage, hates non-white immigration (legal or not), and openly praises racist-nationalist groups in Europe -- the true source of U.S. culture -- like the neo-fascist British National Party.

But it's hardly an obscure sect in U.S. and Southern politics. Dozens of mainstream politicians, almost all of them Republicans, have spoken at, endorsed or otherwise been involved in CCC activities. These include:

* Gov. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi
* Former Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi
* Former Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia
* Dozens of state lawmakers in Florida and Mississippi

While slightly more open about their hostility to people of non-European heritage, the Council's distasteful positions are largely couched in the same libertarian language as Rand's: anti-Washington, pro-state's rights.

Consider even Rand Paul's father, the libertarian maverick Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas. On the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Rep. Paul rose to speak in Congress with a speech titled "The Trouble with Imposed Integration."

Based on his libertarian views, Rep. Paul blasted the Civil Rights Act as an "expansion of federal power was based on an erroneous interpretation of the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce" that "violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty."

Such views, a natural outgrowth of the elder Paul's staunch anti-government ideology, didn't cause a media flap or raise questions about Paul's qualifications to hold office. Neither did the revelation in 2008 that, in the 1990s, Rep. Paul sent fundraising appeals bashing African-Americans and gays -- a signal that his animosity to civil rights may be about more than opposition to "big government."

Today, candidate Rand Paul -- the latest incarnation of this philosophy -- backtracked from his earlier position, saying he supported the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act after all, and that this chapter of U.S. history was "settled."

Clearly, in Southern politics and beyond, that's far from the case.

PHOTO: The Walgreens lunch counter that was a target of the 1960 civil rights sit-in movement.