Rand Paul and D. W. Griffith

If Americans think of Kentucky at all, they tend not to regard it as part of the Deep South on racial matters: no history of water cannons fired at civil-rights demonstrators; the kind of place that gave the world a proud and defiant Muhammad Ali, not a brutal and racist Bull Connor.

But there is another Kentucky, one I witnessed as a reporter starting out there when court-ordered busing began in the 1970s. It is a border state with a comparatively tiny black population, and which, as a result, is way behind the times in accommodating itself to the racial realities of modern America.

There was little violence when busing started, but there were Klan rallies and smoldering anger along Dixie Highway and a Republican Party ready to rise on those emotions.

Some of that old-time, race-based attitude—a Kentucky mix of romantic benevolence and cruel disdain (immortalized in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation)—has seeped into the groundwater of the Tea Party. I attended one of its first rallies, in Louisville more than a year ago, and I saw on the ground some of the anti-busing elements of old there.

If Dr. Rand Paul doesn't immediately apologize for holding his victory rally at a private club—and doesn't abandon his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act—then he will not only pollute the Tea Party, he will severely damage the GOP's chances of winning control of either the House or Senate this fall.

Politics operates serendipitously in America, thank goodness. One little slip can open the door to a wider, even profound discussion. The Tea Party has rocketed to prominence with a seething anti-federal message: that Washington is spending too much, controlling too much, and taxing too much, and is doing it unconstitutionally.

But the other side of that age-old American argument is that our federal government is the protector of rights and freedom, including the freedom to be treated universally as a human being.

Tea Party philosophy runs smack into the wall of rights the Constitution creates, and if Paul doesn't want to recognize that, he will turn the entire election into a referendum on racial discrimination.

We fought a war 150 years ago about that. Paul wasn't born in Kentucky, but he should know the local history. Brother fought brother; both Lincoln and Davis were born in the state; Kentucky's government was Union, but many of its citizens were rebels.

That war is over. It's not in anyone's interest—especially Paul's—to revive it.

Rand Paul and D. W. Griffith | U.S.