Federal government can be a force for good

Government can be a force for good or tyranny. A recent visit to a historic place reinforced for me the positive side.

Last week, I spent a short time in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, site of a 1963 bombing that helped accelerate the 20th-century civil rights movement. The small but dignified building is holy ground in more ways than one.

It took decades, but ultimately the FBI and the greater Justice Department pushed to solve the bombing case and finally sent the perpetrators — all Ku Klux Klan members — to prison for murder. Two died behind bars and one was denied parole last year. A fourth suspect died in the 1990s before he could be charged and tried.

Standing at the commemorative, polished stone at the rear side of the building, I thought about how the names of the four young women killed — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair — are far less known than those of John, Paul, George and Ringo, who landed in the United States six months after the Birmingham incident.

I was sitting in the Romanesque church as one of a couple dozen chaperones accompanying hundreds of teenagers from all over the country. No museum, the building remains an active Baptist church in regular use. The Rev. Carolyn McKinstry, who was in the church on the day of the bombing and speaks regularly of that day, had the kids transfixed with her account. They even put down their smartphones for a while.

The case and its resolution were neither clean nor linear. J. Edgar Hoover comported himself as you might expect, forcing closure and sealing of the case early on.  A later Alabama attorney general reopened it and found the FBI had gotten a great deal of evidence that hadn’t seen the light of day. Not until 2000 did the FBI get involved again. So Justice delayed ultimately became at least partial justice.

Similarly, racial segregation neither disappeared overnight nor stopped claiming innocent lives. But the bombing did appall enough people of all stripes that the high tide of segregation and its effects started to recede from their high water mark.

McKinstry read excerpts from the Alabama codes pertaining to segregation, a reminder that the practice was not merely cultural but also legal. She read similar-sounding passages from Germany’s Nuremberg laws. Some 80 bombings in Birmingham between the end of World War II and the 1960s underscored that unfettered and unpunished violence and the threat of violence undergirded enforcement of the statutes.

In retrospect, what other than the federal government could create conditions necessary to change what today looks nearly unbelievable. Across the street from the church is a museum filled with artifacts of segregation. Signage, classroom furnishings of white and black schools side-by-side, posters with lurid depictions of the “colored,” even an iconic pair of side-by-side drinking fountains. It was enough to render the kids bug-eyed. As a young teen in the late 1960s, I recall seeing white/colored signs and doorways still extant, if no longer operative, in fading establishments on Route 1 between Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in retrospect looks inevitable. But that too entailed a messy, fraught process. A block of Southern Democratic senators filibustered it for weeks. It took the unique legislative and persuasive genius of Lyndon Johnson (who’d opposed civil rights legislation while a senator) together with some weakening of federal enforcement powers, to get it through.

I once argued with a now-deceased editor about public transportation and whether it should be privatized. He was well paid, had a nice home in an affluent suburb. Several factors in his life made him particularly compassionate to the downtrodden or needing more help than a single family may be able to provide. He referred to government, whether manifest as local buses or Social Security, as the “provider of last resort.”

My feeling is yes and no, it depends on what’s provided. The 10th Amendment is there for a reason. But establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, and providing the blessings of liberty sometimes requires a national response.

This post first appeared as a column at FederalNewsRadio.com