It’s a leading plank among these revisionists that Goldwater and other conservative heroes opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 championed by that “low-rent” Johnson only because of constitutional objections (much like those Paul raised about the law in his 2010 Senate campaign). As Noemie Emery tried to make this case in 2011 in The Weekly Standard, “the law was opposed by leading members of the emerging conservative movement—Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley Jr.—for reasons having to do with small-government principles that nonetheless permitted their theories and the interests of the segregationists for that moment in time to converge.”
She and her fellow travelers in racial revisionism protest too much. To believe that the convergence between lofty conservative theory and expedient racial politics was innocent, you have to forget Buckley’s 1957 declaration that “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.” You have to ignore Goldwater’s famous 1961 political dictum that the Republican Party “go hunting where the ducks are” and pander to southern white conservatives. You have to believe that it was a complete accident that Reagan chose Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the “Mississippi Burning” slaughter of three civil-rights workers, to deliver a speech on “states’ rights” in 1980. You also have to disregard the political game plan codified by Kevin Phillips, the Nixon political strategist whose book The Emerging Republican Majority helped cement the party’s “southern strategy” of mining white backlash to the civil-rights movement. Speaking to the Times in 1970, Phillips said, “The more Negros 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.” Or, in Goldwater’s earlier parlance, the ducks.
To buy that it was only “small-government principles,” uncorrupted by cynical racial politics, that led these conservative leaders to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you most of all have to redact the crucial role played by Thurmond when he bolted to the GOP in 1964 and enlisted in the Goldwater campaign. By all accounts, Goldwater himself was not a racist. But he knew the political value of playing the race card. There was no reason for him to welcome the militant white supremacist Thurmond into the GOP except for the obvious one: His presence sealed the deal with voters who wanted confirmation that, whatever Goldwater’s “principled” opposition to the Civil Rights Act, his election as president would help assure that similar laws would be resisted for years to come. (Goldwater, not so incidentally, was the only senator in either party who filled in for Thurmond when he took a bathroom break during his record filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.) Thurmond gave the Republican ticket—and by extension the entire party—the imprimatur of a top-tier bigot. The South Carolina senator had previously left the Democrats to run as a third-party Dixiecrat in 1948—“All the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” he had declaimed then—and had opposed civil-rights legislation, even anti-lynching laws, ever since.
The primacy of Thurmond in the GOP’s racial realignment is the most incriminating truth the right keeps trying to cover up. That’s why the George W. Bush White House shoved the Mississippi senator Trent Lott out of his post as Senate majority leader in 2002 once news spread that Lott had told Thurmond’s 100th-birthday gathering that America “wouldn’t have had all these problems” if the old Dixiecrat had been elected president in 1948. Lott, it soon became clear, had also lavished praise on Jefferson Davis and associated for decades with other far-right groups in thrall to the old Confederate cause. But the GOP elites didn’t seem to mind until he committed the truly unpardonable sin of reminding America, if only for a moment, of the exact history his party most wanted and needed to suppress. Then he had to be shut down at once.
A decade-plus after Lott’s fall, the whitewashing of Thurmond and his role in defining the modern GOP continues. When Joseph Crespino, a historian at Emory University, published the most authoritative study on Thurmond to date, Strom Thurmond’s America, last year, The Wall Street Journal assigned a review to a writer named Lee Edwards, whom it identified as a Goldwater biographer and “a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.” What the Journal didn’t say—but Crespino did, in his book—is that Edwards was also “an assistant press secretary in the Goldwater campaign and editor of a 1965 exposé of alleged Communist connections to the civil-rights movement.” Unsurprisingly, Edwards’s review portrayed old Strom as a principled constitutional conservative and a “shrewd pragmatist who loved the Old South but welcomed the New South, with its voting rights for all citizens.” In Edwards’s estimation, “the majority of South Carolina voters, black as well as white,” would accept so benign a judgment. Edwards also praised Thurmond for being a generous dad to his secret African-American daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who had revealed her paternity six months after the senator died in 2003. “Her mother had worked for Thurmond’s parents” was how the Journal’s writer blandly described the circumstances of Washington-Williams’s birth.