Disparate political events this fall -- the rejection of Robert Bork, the pending recall of Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham, the gubernatorial election in Mississippi -- have convinced me that we have reached an important benchmark in our history. We have reached the point where civil rights, and in particular the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has become as American as apple pie. To attack the civil rights revolution, to have opposed the Civil Rights Act and to cast aspersions on Martin Luther King Jr. have now become politically dangerous and often politically fatal. They are like spitting on the flag or attacking motherhood. They will not be excused.
Consider the case of Judge Bork. Many of the provocative remarks he made as a professor and scholar hurt him. But none hurt him more than his statement in the 1963 New Republic article that the public-accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act embodied "a principle of unsurpassed ugliness."
Never mind that there are intellectually respectable arguments that a person of good will could make in support of Bork's characterization. Never mind as well that the president and the Democratic speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader all opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The fact is that Bork's 1963 statement in today's America turns out to be disqualifying.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the responses of the southern senators. All but two southern Democrats and one southern Republican voted against Bork. Part of the reason is that their black constituents were strongly against him and their white constituents were, at most, mildly for him.
Another factor is that the South is proud of its response to civil rights. White southerners, almost everyone thought in 1964, would adamantly and violently resist the Civil Rights Act. Instead, they accepted desegregation of public accommodations and work places and local governments with little objection and in many cases with wholehearted relief. Southerners have changed. The dismantlement of legal segregation is one of the things that make southerners proud of the South and Americans generally proud about America. We don't respond positively to a man who suggested that it wasn't a good idea.
The strength of this pride is evident in Arizona, where Gov. Mecham got in political trouble immediately after taking office and rescinding the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday declared by his predecessor, Bruce Babbitt.
Arizona is one of America's most conservative and most Republican states, the home of Barry Goldwater, who as a presidential nominee opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Mecham's argument that Babbitt had no power to declare the holiday had some support. Yet the political reaction against him has been overwhelmingly negative. A recall movement started by a local businessman who admits he is a homosexual has gathered some 388,000 signatures, and a recall election will be held next year. The Arizona Republic and Barry Goldwater himself have called on Mecham to resign.
Mecham has been hurt by ham-handed statements he and supporters have made and by his obvious incompetence. Yet who would have dreamed that rescinding the King holiday would begin a chain of events that could result in the voters' removing him from office?
Meanwhile, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964 and a jury acquitted the men accused of killing them, has just conducted a governor's race in which evidence of racism seems to have been entirely absent and in which every serious candidate has been striving to win blacks' votes.
In the Democratic primary, blacks and whites split geographically between Jackson-based Ray Mabus and Delta-based Mike Sturdivant. In the general election, Republican Jack Reed stressed his record of easing desegregation in Tupelo, even though he seemed to have little chance of winning most blacks' votes against Mabus. Forty years ago in Mississippi white politicians found advantage in comparing blacks to monkeys. In 1987 they find advantage among white voters as well as black voters in stressing their work for civil rights.
All of this is not to say there is no room for improvement in the way American whites treat American blacks or that all the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved. Blacks, who may still be least content with the status quo, are much more entitled to feel pride over the nation's civil rights achievements, which they fought for so brilliantly and bravely, than are whites, whose contribution was lesser. But Americans generally have a right to feel proud of what they have done on civil rights. The civil rights revolution started by American blacks has produced a change for the better in behavior and attitudes in one generation that is, so far as I know, unparalleled in history.
Politicians persist in arguing about the marginal civil rights issues -- quotas, political redistricting -- that remain. But the vast majority of the American people has quit arguing. For these Americans civil rights is as American as apple pie, as unassailable as the flag, as much a part of our country as the Fourth of July.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.