This kind of historical fantasia—and worse—has become more brazen than ever since Obama arrived on the scene. Three years ago, while contemplating his own presidential run, Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican leader, went so far as to praise the rabidly segregationist White Citizens’ Councils of his youth for their opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. (The racist Councils had opposed the Klan, a rival, in the same sense that the Capone gang opposed the Moran gang in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.) Barbour also boasted about attending integrated schools in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in the sixties, even though the courts didn’t step in to finally enforce desegregation there until 1970 (when he was 22). “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said of the racial climate in his hometown in 1962. That was the same year that a riot killing two and injuring more than 300 broke out 150 miles away, in Oxford, Mississippi, when the then-governor, Ross Barnett, defied a court order forcing the university to admit a black student, James Meredith. Almost matching Paul and Barbour in historical fabrication is another Republican with presidential ambitions, Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who in 2010 omitted any mention of slavery from his already dubious declaration of Confederate History Month; he explained he wanted to focus on issues he thought “were most significant” for his state. (McDonnell, like Barbour, soon had to undertake a public reeducation tour and backpedal.)
Yet the most insidious and determined campaign to rewrite racial history on the right has come not from yahoo political hacks but from a coterie of writers who pop up at relatively highbrow conservative publications like The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and The Weekly Standard. Their work, often underwritten by conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, feeds the politicians their source material. Some of these writers’ spurious output makes it into the so-called liberal media as well, including that of Gerard Alexander, an AEI “scholar” who published a piece titled “Conservatism Does Not Equal Racism. So Why Do Many Liberals Assume It Does?” in the Washington Post in September 2010. Alexander, the author of a previous Weekly Standard article defending the GOP as “the party of civil rights,” wrote in the Post that “many white conservatives swoon when members of minority groups proudly share their values” and that “the old conservatism-as-racism story has outlived all usefulness and accuracy.” Oh, really? In just the six months before his article appeared, a short list of conservatism-as-racism stories would include Andrew Breitbart’s attempted high-tech lynching of the black Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod; the epithets hurled at the civil-rights hero John Lewis, among other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a mêlée on the Capitol grounds; and a “parody” letter by a Tea Party Express spokesman in which the “NAACP head colored person” called Lincoln the “greatest racist ever.”
The history that such Republican water-carriers want to blot out was succinctly summarized recently by the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz: “Everybody knows that in 1964, a proud southern Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, pushed hard to secure the civil-rights bill, with the aid of a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans. This sent the defeated segregationist southern Democrats (led by Strom Thurmond) fleeing into the Republican Party, where its remnants, along with a younger generation of extremist conservative white Southerners, including Rand Paul, still reside.” The only part of this that is not true are Wilentz’s first two words: In our amnesiac country, everybody does not know what happened 50 years ago, which is why the revisionists have an opening to fill the vacuum.
And so we have Kevin Williamson’s essay “The Party of Civil Rights—It Has Always Been the Republicans” (in National Review last year) asserting that the rise of the GOP in the South in the sixties was mostly about economic issues, the Vietnam War, the counterculture, law and order, and anti-communism, because race was then in “decline” as “the most important political question.” (That decline may have been less evident to black Southerners of that time who witnessed, among other seminal events, Bloody Sunday in Selma in 1965 and the King assassination in Memphis in 1968.) Williamson also stated that Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 civil-rights bill was only that of a “principled critic,” as opposed to that of a candidate pandering to segregationists in southern states, five of which just happened to go Republican that year for the first time since Reconstruction. In a new National Review essay last month, Williamson goes further still, portraying Goldwater as a civil-rights hero next to the “low-rent” LBJ.