Now that the controversy over Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is front-page news in the New York Times, it's worth thinking about two cases that show the limits of the federal law, and the power of other forces, including rational choice and self-interest, in bringing about desegregation.
The first case is Atlanta versus Birmingham. The two cities started out about the same size, but Atlanta became an economic powerhouse of the "New South," while Birmingham became synonymous with racial violence and unrest. The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied equally in both places. But it's hard to legislate racial comity from Washington. Atlanta, while by no means perfect, had some far-sighted local leaders and a healthier conversation about race. It also had the wisdom to build a major international airport, while Birmingham was busy raising the aviation fuel tax.
The second case is the University of Alabama and its Crimson Tide football team coached by the legendary Bear Bryant. In 1970, notwithstanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that had passed six years earlier, the team was still all white. As Don Yaeger tells the story in his book Turning of the Tide, which was reviewed in the New York Sun by Allen Barra, Bryant engineered a game against the University of Southern California. From the review:
it's clear that Bryant's intentions were to shake up the boosters and politicians who still resisted integration, and that he also knew his team was no match for the Trojans. It wasn't: the 42–21 Trojan rout was the game that caught the attention of the entire South.
The Alabama papers, both white and black, made no mention of the game's significance, but word of mouth made all the difference. Even before the game, Jim Murray understood the result no matter who won: "The point of the game will not be the score, the Bear, the Trojans; the point of the game will be Reason, Democracy, Hope. The real winner will be the South." Murray was right. I only wish Mr. Yaeger had devoted more space to the next season's game, when an integrated Alabama team whipped Southern Cal in Los Angeles.
"Turning of the Tide" is that rare sports book that can be read with pride by fans of both the winning and losing teams. To his credit, Mr. Yaeger doesn't seem to believe the legend that after the 1970 game, Bryant "borrowed" USC fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham (who had rushed for 135 yards) and brought him to the Tide locker room, where he told his players, "Gentlemen, this what a football player looks like." It never happened, but I'll bet that scene shows up when they make the movie.
The motivating factor for Alabama wasn't complying with the Civil Rights Act of 1964; it was winning football games.
What's all this have to do with capitalism? Sometimes self-interest and competition can be more powerful and constructive and effective forces for good and for justice than government regulation. The racial problems of the South were intertwined with the capitalism of the cotton industry, as Gene Dattel writes in his book Cotton and Race in the Making of America. But just as the dynamism and progress of private industry (herbicides, mechanized cotton pickers) helped to eliminate or sharply reduce the need for manual laborers in cotton fields, so too the forces that helped to end segregation in the South were a lot more complex and in a certain way capitalist than just a law passed in Washington.