How corporations won their own civil rights movement

The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling drew protests, but author Adam Winkler says it was the result of a centuries-long  battle to award corporations rights normally conferred to people.

(CNN)Procter & Gamble never marched on Washington singing "We Shall Overcome." Google was never blocked from eating in a diner that said, "For People Only." Nobody ever called the Pillsbury Doughboy the N-word.

When people talk about the oppressed, they usually refer to groups like racial minorities or gays and lesbians. But a new book shows how corporations successfully staged their own freedom movement by employing tactics associated with civil rights struggles: civil disobedience, test court cases and portraying themselves as victims of political persecution.
In "We The Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights," UCLA law professor Adam Winkler details how corporations waged a two century-long campaign to win nearly the same rights as ordinary people: freedom of speech, religious liberty and "personhood" -- the notion former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney alluded to when he said, "Corporations are people, my friend."
Romney's declaration was part of the rationale that produced Citizens United, a 2010 Supreme Court decision that eased restrictions on spending by corporations and unions in political campaigns.
    That decision was widely criticized, but questions over corporate power in politics persist. Facebook has been accused of swaying a presidential election. A recent overhaul of the nation's tax code has been depicted as a corporate giveaway. In another victory for corporations, the Supreme Court said this week that companies could block workers from banding together to fight legal disputes in employment arbitration agreements.
    Some even say the US is no longer a democracy but a "corporatocracy."
    In an accessible and engaging read, Winkler shows how corporations took their cries for freedom, not to the streets but to the Supreme Court to become "the most powerful players in American politics."
    They successfully argued that their equal rights were being violated by unwanted regulations and taxes. And they engaged in civil disobedience by refusing to pay what they considered unlawful taxes, deliberately breaking the law to send test cases to court.
    "We think of the Supreme Court as a bulwark to protect minorities," Winkler says, "but it's used that power much more often to protect the rich and powerful."
    In one of the most astonishing sections in the book, Winkler recounts how the corporations and the court transformed the 14th Amendment -- designed to protect the basic rights of freed slaves after the Civil War -- into a weapon to boost corporate power.
    He writes:
    "The 14th Amendment was converted from a shield for the rights of racial minorities -- who found little protection from the Supreme Court for the next half-century -- into a weapon for corporations to use against state laws regulating business activity."
    Winkler recently sat down with CNN to talk about the book. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
    Q: A lot of people complain about the growing power of corporate money in politics, particularly after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. You say that it's difficult for courts to control the power of corporations in politics. Why is that?
    A: We think of the courts as being a place of equal justice, of Lady Justice being blind to the relative finances of the parties. But the court system is also uniquely designed for those with money to take advantage. And corporations, unlike civil rights organizations, have had the resources to hire the best, most creative and most experienced lawyers in the country to represent their interests in court.