Civil Rights and American Conservatism

January 17, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

With all the tributes to Martin Luther King, it might be difficult to remember that in his lifetime, Americans were not always so aligned with Dr. King and the goals he worked for.

In August, Gallup (here) published some of their polling from the 1960s. The contrast with opinions today, when only 4% are unfavorable, is remarkable.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

(Note: these results include all races.  The data for whites only would surely show a higher percent unfavorable and a lower percent favorable.)

Except for 1966, the total favorable and unfavorable are fairly close.  (The change in 1966 is a result of King’s opposition to the Vietnam war.  He was right about that too.)  But of those with strong opinions, the “highly unfavorables” always outnumber the “highly favorables.” 

The unfavorables weren’t just those rabid Southern whites so familiar from the historical news footage. The same ideas could be found among seemingly temperate, sophisticated, and intellectual conservatives. Affable Ronald Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

In 1957, William F. Buckley, Jr. supported the suppression of black votes in the South
The central question that emerges . . . is whether 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? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.  (The full article is excerpted by Brad DeLong here.)
That was before the rise of the Civil Rights movement.  Six years later, when Dr. King had come to prominence, a black church in Birmingham was firebombed.  Four young girls died.  Here is how Buckley’s National Review responded.
The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice. [emphasis added]
The suggestion that the firebombing was committed by “a communist or a crazed Negro” is a fantasy of pure desperation and wish-fulfillment.  Note also NR’s concern for “the cause of white people.”  As for the church bombing, the beatings, the tortures, the murders, and other acts of terrorism (“convulsions” as the NR calls them), committed against blacks and civil rights workers, just blame it all on the Supreme Court. 

All this would be laughable if the events were not of such grave importance and if the commentary were from some obscure, racist corner.  But National Review, then as now, was the main voice of intellectual conservatism. 

Eugene Volokh, in an appreciation of Buckley (here), notes that it wasn’t until the late 1960s, after the passage of the major civil rights laws and probably after the King and RFK assassinations, that Buckley and NR finally gave up defending segregation.  Volokh also says, approvingly,
Buckley tried very hard to create a genial and friendly image for conservatism as opposed to one that projected anger, intolerance, and rage.
Michael Harrington made the same observation but phrased it somewhat differently:
William Buckley is an urbane front man for some of the most vicious emotions in this country.


PCM said...

Very interesting post, Jay. I bit of history I did not know.

veganelder said...

Superlative! Thanks for revisiting this. The recent attack on JFK by one of the potential presidential candidates reminded me of how how hated JFK was at one time because of some of his stances.

In my lifetime the "conservatives" have way too often advocated and supported grotesque positions antithetical to democracy and equality. It is all too easy to put a rosy glow around Buckley but in fact he was often a defender of repulsive and despicable positions.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the kind comment, VE. I liked this post too. And thanks for reading so many old posts here and commenting on the.