The Conservative Fantasy History of Civil Rights

By
Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, and other civil rights heroes. Not pictured: black people.
Photo: 1980/MPI/Getty

The civil rights movement, once a controversial left-wing fringe, has grown deeply embedded into the fabric of our national story. This is a salutary development, but a problematic one for conservatives, who are the direct political descendants of (and, in the case of some of the older members of the movement, the exact same people as) the strident opponents of the civil rights movement. It has thus become necessary for conservatives to craft an alternative story, one that absolves their own ideology of any guilt. The right has dutifully set itself to its task, circulating its convoluted version of history, honing it to the point where it can be repeated by any defensive College Republican in his dorm room. Kevin Williamson’s cover story in National Review is the latest version of what is rapidly congealing into conservatism’s revisionist dogma.

The mainstream, and correct, history of the politics of civil rights is as follows. Southern white supremacy operated out of the Democratic Party beginning in the nineteenth century, but the party began attracting northern liberals, including African-Americans, into an ideologically cumbersome coalition. Over time the liberals prevailed, forcing the Democratic Party to support civil rights, and driving conservative (and especially southern) whites out, where they realigned with the Republican Party.

Williamson crafts a tale in which the Republican Party is and always has been the greatest friend the civil rights cause ever had. The Republican takeover of the white South had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights, the revisionist case proclaims, except insofar as white Southerners supported Republicans because they were more pro-civil rights.

One factoid undergirding this bizarre interpretation is that the partisan realignment obviously took a long time to complete — Southerners still frequently voted Democratic into the seventies and eighties. This proves, according to Williamson, that a backlash against civil rights could not have driven southern whites out of the Democratic Party. “They say things move slower in the South — but not that slow,” he insists.

His story completely ignores the explicit revolt by conservative Southerners against the northern liberal civil rights wing, beginning with Strom Thurmond, who formed a third-party campaign in 1948 in protest against Harry Truman’s support for civil rights. Thurmond received 49 percent of the vote in Louisiana, 72 percent in South Carolina, 80 percent in Alabama, and 87 percent in Mississippi. He later, of course, switched to the Republican Party.

Thurmond’s candidacy is instructive. Democratic voting was deeply acculturated among southern whites as a result of the Civil War. When southern whites began to shake loose of it, they began at the presidential level, in protest against the civil rights leanings of the national wing. It took decades for the transformation to filter down, first to Congressional-level representation (Thurmond, who Williamson mentions only in his capacity as a loyal Democrat, finally switched to the GOP in 1964), and ultimately to local-level government. The most fervently white supremacist portions of the South were also the slowest to shed their Confederate-rooted one-party traditions. None of this slowness actually proves Williamson’s contention that the decline of the Democratic Party in the South was unrelated to race.

Williamson concedes, with inadvertently hilarious understatement, that the party “went through a long dry spell on civil-rights progress” — that would be the century that passed between Reconstruction and President Eisenhower’s minimalist response to massive resistance in 1957. But after this wee dry spell, the party resumed and maintained its natural place as civil rights champion. To the extent that Republicans replaced Democrats in the South, Williamson sees their support for civil rights as the cause. (“Republicans did begin to win some southern House seats, and in many cases segregationist Democrats were thrown out by southern voters in favor of civil-rights Republicans.”) As his one data point, Williamson cites the victory of George Bush in Texas over a Democrat who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He correctly cites Bush’s previous record of moderation on civil rights but neglects to mention that Bush also opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Williamson does feel obliged to mention Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but defends it as a “principled” opposition to the “extension of federal power.” At the same time, he savages southern Democrats for their opposition to the 14th and 15th Amendments, Reconstruction, anti-lynching laws, and so on. It does not seem to occur to him that many of these opponents also presented their case in exactly the same pro-states' rights, anti-federal power terms that Goldwater employed. Williamson is willing to concede that opponents of civil rights laws have philosophical principles behind them, but only if they are Republican. (Perhaps is the process by which figures like Thurmond and Jesse Helms were cleansed of their racism and became mere ideological opponents of federal intrusion.)

To the extent that the spirit of the all-white, pro-states' rights, rigidly “Constitutionalist” southern Democrats exists at all today, Williamson locates it not in the nearly all-white, pro-states' rights, rigidly “Constitutionalist” southern Republicans, but rather in the current Democratic Party. This is possibly the most mind-boggling claim in Williamson’s essay:

Democrats who argue that the best policies for black Americans are those that are soft on crime and generous with welfare are engaged in much the same sort of cynical racial calculation President Johnson was practicing when he informed skeptical southern governors that his plan for the Great Society was “to have them niggers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.” Johnson’s crude racism is, happily, largely a relic of the past, but his strategy endures. 

The strategy of crude Democratic racism endures! That this strategy has sucked in more than 90 percent of the black electorate, and is currently being executed at the highest level by Barack Obama (who — at this point, it may be necessary to inform Williamson — is black) suggests a mind-blowing level of false consciousness at work among the African-American community.

Williamson does stumble on to one interesting vein of history, but completely misses its import. In the course of dismissing Goldwater’s 1964 opposition to the Civil Rights Act, he notes that the Republican Party declined to fully follow his lead. The party platform, he notes, called for “full implementation and faithful execution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” He does not mention that this language came after party conservatives rejected amendments with stronger language endorsing “enforcement” of the civil rights law and describing the protection of the right to vote as a “constitutional responsibility.” (A bit of this story can be found in Ben Wallace-Wells’s fantastic piece on George Romney in the current print issue, and more in Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Rule and Ruin.”)

It is true that most Republicans in 1964 held vastly more liberal positions on civil rights than Goldwater. This strikes Williamson as proof of the idiosyncratic and isolated quality of Goldwater’s civil rights stance. What it actually shows is that conservatives had not yet gained control of the Republican Party.

But conservative Republicans — those represented politically by Goldwater, and intellectually by William F. Buckley and National Review — did oppose the civil rights movement. Buckley wrote frankly about his endorsement of white supremacy: “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” More often conservatives argued on grounds of states’ rights, or freedom of property, or that civil rights leaders were annoying hypocrites, or that they had undermined respect for the law.

Rick Perlstein surveyed the consistent hostility of contemporary conservatives to the civil rights movement. Ronald Reagan, like many conservatives, attributed urban riots to the breakdown in respect for authority instigated by the civil rights movement’s embrace of civil disobedience (a “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break, thundered Reagan”). Buckley sneered at the double standard of liberal Democrats — in 1965, he complained, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended the funeral of a white woman shot by the Klan for riding in a car with a black man, but did not attend the funeral of a white cop shot by a black man. The right seethed with indignation at white northern liberals, decrying the fate of their black allies while ignoring the assaults mounted by blacks against whites.

And of course this sentiment — exactly this sentiment — right now constitutes the major way in which conservatives talk about race. McKay Coppins has a fine story about how conservative media has been reporting since 2009 on an imagined race war, a state of affairs in which blacks routinely assault whites, which is allegedly being covered up by authorities in the government and media. “In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering,” said Rush Limbaugh in 2009.

We should not equate this particular line of hysteria with Buckley-esque defenses of white supremacy, or even with Goldwater-esque concern for states’ rights. The situation is obviously far more different than it is similar. Conservatives are not attacking measures to stop lynching or defending formal legal segregation. The racial paranoia of a Rush Limbaugh or an Andrew Breitbart – Williamson defends both – is far less violent or dangerous than the white racial paranoia of previous generations. That undeniable progress seems to be more tenable ground for Williamson to mount his defense of conservatism and race. Conservatives ought to just try arguing that, while conservatives were wrong to perceive themselves as victims of overweening government and racial double-standards before the civil rights movement triumphed, they are right to do so now.

They need to try something different, anyway. The pseudo-historical attempt to attach conservatism to the civil rights movement is just silly. Here's another idea: Why not get behind the next civil rights idea (gay marriage) now? It would save future generations of conservative apparatchiks from writing tendentious essays insisting the Republican Party was always for it.