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Finding the right solutions for the right time - Policy reflections on Civil Rights


The March on Washington happened 50 years ago today, and its anniversary has me thinking about the policy lessons from the struggle for civil rights. There are dozens of lessons from a struggle that goes back at least 150 years, yet one theme emerges: The strategy to accomplish a goal depends on time, context, resources and opportunity - there isn't a one-size-fits all solution or a single policy solution to solve major issues or meet major goals.

Dr. King starts off his speech by referencing the Emancipation Proclamation as the beginning of the march to freedom, and discusses the defaulted-upon "promissory note" that was promised by the Declaration of Independence. While the Emancipation Proclamation has great symbolic weight, eliminating slavery took more - it required a 13th constitutional amendment. (This story was compelling enough to be the focus of the recent Lincoln movie.)

Policies to meet the major national goal of equality for African Americans began with that and the other Reconstruction Amendments (14 and 15) and continues until this day, demonstrating a clear example of the need for multiple strategies that change over time to achieve a goal. Let's look at just a few of the national-level landmarks of the civil rights movement:

The March on Washington (see video above)  is an example of public pressure and movement-based legislation. It's a good strategy when you have A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., momentum on basic civil rights and the timing to make things happen. Executive and Congressional willpower to lead were two other factors. When I watched the pre-march episode of Meet the Press, featuring MLK and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, it reminded me that many, including some in the Civil Rights movement, were unsure about the March on Washington. There were some fears of violence, and it wasn't clear how many people would show up or what kind of difference it would make. One can empathize with older civil rights leaders of the time who worried that this strategy was too risky and that a violent or poor outcome might cost them the smaller gains that they had already made.

2013 March on Washington. Picture Courtesy of Bob Weddington 
The March ended up being a great thing for the public relations of the movement, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, in part as a result of this strategy, as successors to earlier laws that were passed during Reconstruction and later repealed or circumvented.

A decade earlier, a court-based strategy came to a climax in Brown v Board of Education after decades of work on cases that argued against "Jim Crow" laws that undercut civil rights despite the existence of the Reconstruction Amendments. This was a good strategy when one has the legal minds of Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a set of good cases and a Supreme Court that is amenable to change. So a wartime proclamation, Constitutional amendments, a social movement, and major legislation were all strategies that helped move the cause forward over a century.

We don't need to look at that wide time-frame to understand the need for multiple strategies: this summer's experience with the Voting Rights Act this summer is a demonstration of the need for evolving strategy. From 1965 until this June, the Act's strategy of putting the burden on certain states and jurisdictions to get federal approval for changes to voting was a relatively effective strategy, by preventing state laws that limited voting from ever being enforced. Earlier this year, Section 4 of the Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, taking that tool out of the toolbox. Once that strategy was eliminated, the Justice Department enforced the provision that allows the United States to take States to court and sued Texas over their new voter ID law. This process is less efficient, and requires more lawyers, but it can achieve the goal of getting closer to barrier-free voting for all. The strategy had to change as the context did.

I'm not going to try in this post to give an exhaustive review of all the things that moved America forward on civil rights or to explain the causes behind those actions, but this brief look makes it clear that one strategy does not fit all. The lesson for other policy goals is that it often takes several strategies and a range of tactics to get the job done. I'll look at a few non-civil rights examples of this in my next post.

What reactions did you have to the anniversary? You can follow me @DrUrbanPolicy on twitter and facebook, I'm happy to continue the conversation below or on social media.

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