Classical Liberalism and the Fight for Equal Rights

Remembering the forgotten libertarian legacy of American anti-racism


In a 1992 speech at Colorado's Metro State College, Columbia University historian Manning Marable praised the black minister and activist Malcolm X for pushing an "uncompromising program which was both antiracist and anticapitalist." As Marable favorably quoted from the former Nation of Islam leader: "You can't have racism without capitalism. If you find antiracists, usually they're socialists or their political philosophy is that of socialism."

Spend time on most college campuses and you're likely to hear something very similar. Progressives and leftists, the conventional narrative goes, fought the good fight while conservatives and libertarians either sat it out or sided with the bad guys. But there's a problem with this simplistic view: It completely ignores the fact that classical liberalism—which centers on individual rights, economic liberty, and limited government—played an indispensable role in the fight for equal rights.

Indeed, from the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who championed the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and declared "give the negro fair play and let him alone," to the conservative newspaper magnate R.C. Hoiles (publisher of what is now the Orange County Register), who denounced liberal President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wartime internment of Japanese Americans while most New Dealers (and liberal Supreme Court justices) remained silent, classical liberals have long opposed racism and collectivism in all of its vile forms.

This important yet sadly-neglected history is the subject of Race & Liberty in America (University Press of Kentucky), a superb new anthology edited by Southern Illinois University historian Jonathan Bean, which features carefully selected articles, speeches, book excerpts, newspaper accounts, legal decisions, interviews, and other materials revealing, in Bean's words, that "classical liberals are the invisible men and women of the long civil rights movement." (Full Disclosure: Bean includes one of my articles in a list of recommended readings.)

There's Lysander Spooner, the radical libertarian, legal theorist, and abolitionist who argued that slavery was illegal under both natural law and the U.S. Constitution; Louis Marshall, the "ultraconservative" NAACP attorney and lifelong Republican who won the Supreme Court case Nixon v. Herndon (1927), striking down the "white primaries" favored by racist Southern Democrats; and Zora Neale Hurston, the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance novelist and folklorist who denounced New Deal relief programs as "the biggest weapon ever placed in the hands of those who sought power and votes" and endorsed libertarian Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) for president in 1952.

As Bean demonstrates, when it comes to the history of civil rights and racial equality, most of us have only heard one part of the story. Take the NAACP, which was arguably the leading civil rights organization of the 20th century. Why, Bean writes, "do we know so much about W.E.B. DuBois [an NAACP activist and editor] but little about super-lawyer Moorfield Storey"? A founder of both the NAACP and the Anti-Imperialist League, Storey championed free trade, liberty of contract, and the gold standard alongside racial equality and non-interventionism. In 1917 he argued and won the NAACP's first major victory before the Supreme Court, Buchanan v. Warley, relying on property rights to strike down a residential segregation law. As George Mason University law professor David Bernstein argues, "Buchanan almost certainly prevented governments from passing far harsher segregation laws [and] prevented residential segregation laws from being the leading edge of broader anti-negro measures." DuBois credited the decision with "the breaking of the backbone of segregation."

Now contrast that with the racial record of a celebrated leftist such as labor leader and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. While typically lionized as a champion of the poor and downtrodden, Debs also served as head of the American Railway Union, a discriminatory outfit that banned blacks from its ranks. And while he was apparently personally sympathetic to African Americans, during his 1912 presidential campaign Debs simply declared, "We have nothing special to offer the Negro." Yet this was during the era of lynchings, Jim Crow, and other acts of state criminality that specifically targeted the rights of blacks, a situation classical liberals like Storey clearly understood and effectively challenged.

Along similar lines, Race & Liberty in America includes a fascinating 1924 article from Howard University president Kelly Miller arguing that in the battle between labor and capital, blacks should side with the bosses. "The capitalist stands for an open shop which gives to every man the unhindered right to work according to his ability and skill," Miller wrote. "In this proposition the capitalist and the Negro are as one." Try finding that quote in most standard labor histories.

Taken together, the documents collected in this volume present overwhelming evidence that classical liberalism deserves serious attention in any account of the American struggle for civil rights and a colorblind society. Rather than serving as the villains caricatured by Manning Marable and others on the left, classical liberals provided essential intellectual, political, moral, and financial firepower in the battles against slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, and racial classifications. With Race & Liberty in America, these largely unsung heroes are finally getting some of their due.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor of Reason magazine.

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  1. The chap who outlawed the trans-atlantic slave trade was a member of the conservative party


    back in the days when conservatives where anti-capitalists (social democrats?) and liberals where capitalists (Libertarians?)

    Its all so confusing

  2. Good article. I've definitely come to appreciate Root's work a lot.

  3. Damon, with all due respect,one should tread lightly on the anti-Malcolm sentiment. He was against American capitalism as practiced, which tolerated segregation, and whose government supported Apartheid South Africa. While there were successful black business people in his day, there were social and legal barriers to the majority of blacks that were unquestionably racist and that was called "American capitalism." Is it that surprising he would then spit venom at it?

    In the bulk of his speeches, Malcolm also called for black entrepreneurship, self-ownership, distrust of politicians/the state and in favor of exercising personal responsibility.

    Free market theory means little to those who see business and government acting together to maintain a status quo which holds their people back by business practice, social custom, and law.

    I can't imagine why he might paint the people responsible for that as villains.

    Malcolm X was no libertarian, but he was no statist either.

  4. A good article from Root.

    Classi liberals are anti-racist to the core. Conservatism is entrenched in caste systems no matter the geography.

  5. Addendum:

    Upon re-reading the post, I shouldn't necessarily have taken Damon's words as a swipe at Malcolm, but nevertheless I reflexively defend Malcolm against mischaracterizations of his political position, which if not on Damon's part, is certainly evident in the statements of Manning Marable.

  6. back in the days when conservatives where anti-capitalists (social democrats?)

    I think it's a real stretch to call british style conservatives social democrats.

    In the British world Conservatives were the party upholding the hereditery privileges of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the gentry*.

    Any one who made a living "in trade" was considered uncouth and uncultured. This allowed bankrupt baronets to hold their heads up and display their contempt for wealthy shop owners.

    But they certainly didn't want to spread any of the wealth to the poorer classes like the social democrats did.

    *hence the fact that there has never been a Conservative Party in Australia. While there have been governments that were identified as conservative they are formed by coalitions of the Liberal and the National (fka Country) Parties.

  7. I dont know why Libertarianism is considered a bad guy in the Civil Rights movement since the ideology didnt come around until the 70s.

    Conservatives supporting the Civil Rights Movement is a joke. Yea their might have been a few here or there but overall they didnt. Conservatives played the red card constantly during the movement. The Southern Stragety wasnt a creation of the left (among other horrible ideas they have) it was by conservatives like Buchanan, Jesse Helms, Nixon and others. When I think of the civil rights movement I think Malcolm X, not Buchanan. I also believe that Malcolm X shouldnt be painted as much as a bad guy as some think. He knew of the dangers of Affirmative Action and being dependent on the state.

  8. I'm not sure how this became a thread about Malcolm X, but I'd just like to add that Malcolm X was far more libertarian than MLK or the rest of the "mainstream" civil rights movement.

  9. I dont know why Libertarianism is considered a bad guy in the Civil Rights movement since the ideology didnt come around until the 70s.

    See: "Freedom of association, support for". The fact that we believe property rights aren't to be violated, even if one is running a business, is at the core of the matter.

    Some people confuse supporting some KKK guy's right to speech and agreement with the content of that speech. Similarly, supporting the right of businesses to refuse customers based on grounds of their choosing makes people think we support restaurants that refused to serve blacks, etc.

  10. Sorry - mixed my tenses, but the point should be clear. Also, as libertarians, you should have supported my right to mix tenses.

  11. Taft = libertarian? Exhibit A; the Taft-Hartley Act increased presidential power. Exhibit B; the Taft-Wagner-Ellender Housing Act.

  12. As to Malcolm X's libertarianism; when there is a spectrum of libertarianism, I think certain people become more libertarian depending on if we begin from minarchy or anarcho-capitalism as the extreme of the libertarian spectrum. A creation of an alternative competing power structure is a libertarian action if the ideal is the competitive defense agencies of anarcho-capitalism. The same action may, in a way, be less libertarian if we consider the ultimate goal to be a minimal state; the creation of any state-like structure, even competitive would be less libertarian considered on that spectrum. I guess a better example would be 14th amendment issues; the anarcho-capitalist would be in favour of federalism while the minarchist, taking a Rand/Nozickian position on "procedural rights" would probably be in favour of beefed up protection of negative rights, even if its centralized.

  13. No matter how much nuance is displayed here, if standard GOP conservatives pick up on this book they will claim it as exclusively theirs and use it to bash their main opponents, standard Democratic liberals.

  14. In response to Isaac,

    Your right about some aspects. It was the old Tories in the 1800's who favoured the landed gentry in favour of slavery and the absolute power of the monarchy and a single national church of England. They represented the fuedal system and the very rich. The Whigs were the classic liberals in favour of abolished slavery, universal sufferage and were supported by the merchants, traders, craftsmen and guilds. The whigs were classic liberals who enjoyed capitalism and constitutional rule of law against religious persecution and were for limited monarchy. They eventually turned into the liberal party.

  15. Unclaimed Mysteries,

    I suspect you're right and I wonder if many politicians are truly that narrow-minded or if they're merely being disingenuous.

  16. We must point out that "discrimination" originally referred to
    the bias, not of individuals in their private dealings, but of
    government in its defense of the life, liberty, and property of all
    people (in other words: political equality). That's because Jim Crow
    was not a social custom but a political system.Here we come to the
    reality that the Left cannot face. Ever since the Sixties, the Left
    has spun the line that racism is the outgrowth of "capitalism."
    Without government controls, bigotry will germinate from every square inch of the open society. However, it is a theory of racism that is falsified by the practice of racism. Almost without exception, the history of racism is a history of statism, i.e., of government imposition of racism on society. From the American South to
    Nazi Germany to apartheid-era South Africa, it is government that
    (directly or through indifference) murders people because of their
    race, that establishes segregated economic and cultural institutions,
    that criminalizes interracial sexuality and marriage, and in general
    is responsible for almost every image that comes to mind when we
    speak of racism. If bigotry is the natural reflex of the social
    masses, why have racists always had to turn to the State to keep
    people of different races from teaching each other, hiring each
    other, marrying each other, and basically living together as members
    of the same society? Indeed, if there is an organic relationship
    between racism and capitalism, then ...


  17. "I dont know why Libertarianism is considered a bad guy in the Civil Rights movement since the ideology didnt come around until the 70s."

    Maybe because the idea of individual liberty and self reliance doesn't mesh too well with Affirmative Action.

  18. Jim Crow was a political system that started as social custom. It's not a case of bad old Statists popping out of thin air imposing laws on people. there were those Libertarians that didn't want any kind of government intervention even when new laws would have overturned Jim Crow laws.

  19. I dont know why Libertarianism is considered a bad guy in the Civil Rights movement since the ideology didnt come around until the 70s.

    Barry Goldwater, the bogeyman of progressive thought, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That's all you need to know.

  20. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets...in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it's literally a labyrinth, that's no joke

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