Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, expresses contempt and disgust for what he calls “the outright lie, the utter fabrication with malice aforethought” in modern politics. He then proceeds to indulge in something pretty close to the fabrication that he claims to despise.
Williamson’s thesis is that the Republican Party is and always has been the party that fought hardest for civil rights in this country, and that the Democratic Party has been the party that has fought hardest to sustain white privilege. And he is angry that the reputations of the two parties do not reflect what he perceives as historical reality.
“That Republicans have let Democrats get away with this mountebankery is a symptom of their political fecklessness, and in letting them get away with it the GOP has allowed itself to be cut off rhetorically from a pantheon of Republican political heroes, from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony, who represent an expression of conservative ideals as true and relevant today as it was in the 19th century,” Williamson writes.
Let’s stipulate that on the narrow terms in which Williamson attempts to define the issue, and within a particular time frame, he has an arguable case. Fifty or 60 years ago, much of the Republican Party did indeed support civil rights reform. That’s why the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., along with many other black Americans, considered themselves proud Republicans at the time.
Conversely, as Williamson documents well, a very large chunk of the Democratic Party — much of it located here in the South — fought bitterly against civil rights and desegregation and in favor of white supremacy. For years, the Democratic Party in Georgia and elsewhere even conducted “whites only” primaries, meaning that black voters such as King Sr. could not have participated even if they wanted to do so.
But once you get past 1960 or so, that history gets much more complicated. You’ve got GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater defending segregation in his 1964 campaign, while President Johnson, a Democrat, fought valiantly for passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
You’ve got George Wallace, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, and by 1968 you’ve got Richard Nixon and his Southern strategy. As Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips described the thinking back in 1970:
“The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
In other words, trying to debate who deserves the title of “The Party of Civil Rights” can quickly get pretty ugly and confusing. So rather than sink into a morass of charge and countercharge, along with attempts to count the various racists on each side in various eras, let’s simplify things dramatically. Instead of discussing this in terms of Democrats and Republicans, let’s address it in terms of liberals and conservatives.
Looked at that way, the issue crystallizes immediately.
Yes, members of both political parties supported the civil rights movement. They were liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats.
Yes, many Democrats chanted “segregation now, segregation forever”; they were conservative Democrats. And that distinction can be traced through every institution of society.
Liberal churches as a rule supported the civil rights movement, as did liberal Jews and liberal clergy such as Will Campbell. Conservative churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention, on the other hand, bitterly opposed desegregation. When the issue split a denomination, as it did the Presbyterians for a time, it was the liberal faction that supported civil rights and the conservative faction that opposed it.
The liberal NAACP and ACLU pushed Brown v. Board of Education to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the liberal Thurgood Marshall argued the case and found a sympathetic ear in Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was so reviled by conservatives that they launched a long-running campaign to impeach him.
Conversely, conservative political groups such as the John Birch Society routinely condemned the civil rights movement as communist-inspired and -led.
Liberal newspapers in the South — the Greenwood Delta Democrat-Times in Mississippi and the Atlanta Constitution here in Georgia, among a few others — angered many white readers with support for desegregation, while conservative newspapers such as the Richmond News Leader, edited by James J. Kilpatrick, staunchly defended segregation on the grounds that “the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.”
“When the Negro today proclaims or demands his ‘equality,’ he is talking of equality within the terms of Western civilization,” Kilpatrick once wrote. “And what, pray, has he contributed to it? Putting aside conjecture, wishful thinking and a puerile jazz-worship, what has he in fact contributed to it? The blunt answer, may it please the court, is very damned little.”
And while liberal media outlets advocated strongly in defense of civil rights, conservative outlets such as Williamson’s own National Review argued just as strenuously that because of the “cultural superiority of white over Negro,” whites were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where [they do] not predominate numerically.”
At this point, let me make it clear that the conservatives of today are not the conservatives of 40 or 50 years ago; I have every confidence that many many conservatives today would strongly repudiate what earlier generations of conservatives espoused. Nor am I attempting to argue that they are permanently stained with the mistakes of their ideological predecessors, because that would be ridiculous.
But let’s also make it clear just what Williamson is attempting to accomplish in his essay. He believes a political legacy is important and useful. He believes that today’s conservatives deserve some vague sort of credit for something that previous conservatives in fact got tragically wrong. He also believes that on issues of race, it is possible to inoculate today’s conservative movement by linking it to a crusade that their ideological forebearers fought bitterly. And history will simply not sustain that claim.
I would further suggest that if today’s Republican Party has “allowed itself to be cut off rhetorically from a pantheon of Republican political heroes, from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony,” it is at least in part because today’s Republican Party has not exactly been in a rush to reclaim that part of its heritage.
– Jay Bookman