Wasn't government action necessary to halt slavery and racial oppression?
Published April 04, 2011 in Short Answers by Mary Ruwart


I recently saw the movie "Amazing Grace," about the end of the slave trade in England. How does libertarianism respond to the American Civil War and the Civil rights movement? In both of them, government action was used to enhance freedom.


Government action made slavery possible, and kept it possible -- and the government only backtracked when the citizenry objected.

For example, prior to the Civil War, slavery was legal and enforced by governments of both North and South. Slaves who escaped to the North were returned -- by law -- to their Southern "owners." It was against the law in the North to help slaves escape. To fight slavery it was necessary for freedom lovers to fight the law.

Members of the Underground Railroad, who tried to get the escaped slaves to Canada where they couldn't be extradited, were routinely hauled into court. Courageous individuals serving on the juries refused to convict. (Juries have the constitutionally-granted power to "nullify" laws that they believe to be unjust; to learn more, see the Fully Informed Jury Association)

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until the Civil War had been underway for years, and it only "emancipated" slaves in states that had joined the Confederacy. Towards the end of the Civil War, indignant abolitionists, supported by President Lincoln, lobbied for an amendment to the Constitution to free the blacks still enslaved in Northern states.

Although Southern states didn't vote on this amendment, it still did not pass easily.

Similarly, government power enforced, and often mandated, compulsory racial segregation in the South in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, economist Thomas Sowell points out that racially segregated seating on public transportation, far from being a traditional Southern policy, only began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- and it was government that created the problem.

Writes Dr. Sowell:

"Many, if not most, municipal transit systems were privately owned in the 19th century and the private owners of these systems had no incentive to segregate the races.

"These owners may have been racists themselves but they were in business to make a profit -- and you don't make a profit by alienating a lot of your customers. There was not enough market demand for Jim Crow seating on municipal transit to bring it about.

"... Private owners of streetcar, bus, and railroad companies in the South lobbied against the Jim Crow laws while these laws were being written, challenged them in the courts after the laws were passed, and then dragged their feet in enforcing those laws after they were upheld by the courts.

"These tactics delayed the enforcement of Jim Crow seating laws for years in some places. Then company employees began to be arrested for not enforcing such laws and at least one president of a streetcar company was threatened with jail if he didn't comply.

 (Dr. Sowell discusses this in greater detail in his book Preferential Policies, An International Perspective, 1990, pp.20-21.]

This is not to say that these transportation company owners were not racists, or were champions of black freedom. They simply wanted to make money. And free markets make racial discrimination extraordinarily, even prohibitively, expensive.

Because of such government-mandated discrimination, the modern Civil Rights movement was pioneered by individuals such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, who practiced peaceful civil disobedience. Without the courageous sacrifices of such people, it's unlikely that Congress would have been inspired (shamed?) into action.

Dr. Ruwart's outstanding books Healing Our World and Short Answers to the Tough Questions are available at the Advocates Liberty Store.

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