The Ragsdales worked with the NAACP and the Arizona Council for Civic Unity/Greater Phoenix Council for Civic Unity to fight segregation in restaurants, theaters, and other public places in Phoenix, but the schools were the biggest target. When Lincoln was working to raise money for the NAACP for a lawsuit to integrate the schools, he turned to every possible source he could think of, including the conservative city councilman Barry Goldwater. To his surprise, Goldwater responded with a large check. What surprised him further was that Goldwater became a personal friend and political colleague of the couple, a “great inspiration,” in Lincoln’s words. The Ragsdales, Lincoln said, became the people to whom Goldwater brought “questions about how we felt about certain things, and we’d try to give him a very honest appraisal of it.” Goldwater supported most of the civil-rights legislation that preceded the famous 1964 act, which he opposed as unconstitutional. But as Ragsdale points out in Race Work, he also “helped make Tuskegee airman Chappie James a four-star general while he was in the Senate,” funded the school-integration lawsuit, and raised money to keep the Urban League solvent when it was on the verge of dissolution.
But funding the lawsuit may have been the most important thing Goldwater did in his civil-rights career. As the historian Quintard Taylor of the University of Washington puts it: “Most historians characterize the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education as the death knell for de jure public school segregation. Yet a little-known legal victory by . . . the Arizona NAACP before the Arizona State Supreme Court in 1953 provided an important precedent for the ruling by the highest court in the land.” The NAACP had not been getting very far suing on behalf of black students, but it had made some progress with suits on behalf of Mexican-American students: A 1951 decision had outlawed segregating Hispanic students in the Tolleson School District, and Phoenix refused to comply with the new legal standard, so it was targeted for a lawsuit, too: one that would have ended racial discrimination against any student. At times, it must have seemed as if segregation in the schools was the cornerstone upon which all segregation stood. Lincoln Ragsdale thought so, and Taylor relates the sentiments of a Phoenix businessman who said: “As long as they attend separate schools, I won’t let them drink in my bar or sit in my theater.” With the support of Goldwater and others, the NAACP sponsored a series of rallies, protests, and fund-raising efforts in support of its litigation.
The NAACP’s federal lawsuit went nowhere. Federal judge David Ling, another FDR appointee, threw the case out on the grounds that the state courts rather than the federal courts were the proper channel for the challenge. New litigation was filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, seeking an end to racial discrimination against any student, and in 1953 — a year before Brown — segregation was declared illegal in Phoenix, with the presiding judge declaring: “A half century of intolerance is enough.” But Phoenix was the last major city in the west to end segregation of its own accord.
Barry Goldwater was not the most important opponent of racial segregation in Arizona, nor was he the most important champion of desegregating the public schools. What he was was on the right side: He put his money, his political clout, his business connections, and his reputation at the service of a cause that was right and just. While he was doing all that, his eventual nemesis, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a low-rent practitioner of the most crass sort of racist politics, was gutting anti-lynching laws and assuring Democrats that he would offer those “uppity Negroes” “just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”
For more than a century, the Republican party had been the party of civil rights, of abolition, of emancipation, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and the NAACP did not represent a break from that tradition, but a continuation of it.
It was a masterpiece of politics that allowed the Democrats to convince the electorate that they were the party of civil rights, that they had not until the day before yesterday been the party of lynching — even as that very same cabal of segregationist Democrats that had tried to block or gut every single significant piece of civil-rights legislation for decades, still led by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, remained comfortably entrenched in the Senate. To hear the story told today, you would almost think that it was the Republican Barry Goldwater, not the Democrat George Wallace, who stood in the schoolhouse door shouting “Segregation forever!” Goldwater believed that Title II and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were unconstitutional. How many Americans even know what is in those sections? About as many as understand the legal arguments surrounding Brown.
The problem for Republicans is that reclaiming their reputation as the party of civil rights requires a party leadership that wants to do so, because it cherishes that tradition and the values that it represents. It is not obvious that the Republican party has such leaders at the moment. The Party of Lincoln seems perfectly happy to be little more than the Party of the Chamber of Commerce. We should not turn our noses up at commerce — though Napoleon meant it as an insult, it was Britain’s glory to be “a nation of shopkeepers” — but it was not commerce alone that freed the slaves or built the nation.