When the conservative editor and intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., ran for mayor of New York in 1965, he may have been the first conservative to endorse affirmative action, or, as he called it, “the kind of special treatment [of African Americans] that might make up for centuries of oppression.” He also promised to crack down on labor unions that discriminated against minorities, a cause even his liberal opponents were unwilling to embrace. Buckley pointed out the inherent unfairness in the administration of drug laws and in judicial sentencing. He also advanced a welfare “reform” plan whose major components were job training, education and daycare.
In 1969, in his capacity as founding editor of National Review, launched a decade and a half earlier as a “conservative weekly journal of opinion” that stood in opposition to the dominant liberal ethos of the time, Buckley toured African-American neighborhoods in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Atlanta organized by the Urban League and afterward singled out for special praise “community organizers” who were working “in straightforward social work in the ghettos.” In an article in Look magazine months later, Buckley anticipated that the United States could well elect an African-American president within a decade, and that this milestone would confer the same reassurance and social distinction upon African Americans that Roman Catholics had felt upon the election of John F. Kennedy. That, he said, would be “welcome tonic” for the American soul.
This Buckley, who emerged in the years after 1965, bore little resemblance to the one who, eight years earlier in 1957, had penned an editorial he titled “Why the South Must Prevail”—in which he declared the white race the more “advanced” race and, as such, the most fit to govern. What happened in those eight years that sparked this change in attitude and policy advocacy on Buckley’s part? How did a man who later proclaimed his greatest legacy was keeping the conservative movement free of bigots, kooks and anti-Semites move past a nakedly racist editorial like that?
It was the convergence of political shifts—particularly in the South, where the more genteel, states’ rights-focused politicians were giving way to more overtly racist, populist demagogues—and his own personal introspection, rooted particularly in his religious faith and his own intellectual concerns about the integrity of conservatism. Buckley’s evolution makes for important context today, particularly in the wake of the 2016 election. As Republican standard-bearers struggle with how to discourage the alt-righters and white nationalists and new wave of populists that Donald Trump’s campaign apparently surfaced, they might do well to pay attention to how exactly Buckley began his search and how he charted out a new course for conservatism at a time when polarization over civil rights threatened to tear the GOP apart.
“Why the South Must Prevail” is shocking to the 21st century reader. The piece put National Review on record in favor of both legal segregation where it existed (in accordance with the “states’ rights” principle) and the right of southern whites to discriminate against southern blacks, on the basis of their “Negro backwardness.” The editorial defended the right of whites to govern exclusively, even in jurisdictions where they did not constitute a majority of the population.
In the same op-ed, Buckley concluded that as long as African Americans remained “backward” in education and in economic progress, Southern whites had a right to “impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to affect a genuine cultural equality between the races.” In defense of his position that whites, for the time being, remained the “more advanced race,” Buckley pointed to the name a major civil rights organization, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had adopted for itself as evidence that its founders considered its constituents “less advanced.” He offered no guidance as to how blacks might attain what he called “cultural equality,” save for by the sufferance of the white population.
It’s important to understand how Buckley rationalized such thinking because it’s at the root of his later transformation. National Review justified its position on the grounds that whites were “the more advanced race,” and as such were “entitled to rule.” Buckley, the author of the editorial, made no mention of the role Southern whites had played, through the social and legal systems they had put into place, in keeping Southern blacks from rising to the point where he—or their white neighbors—would consider them “advanced” and therefore eligible to participate in the region’s governance. He went so far as to condone the violence whites committed to perpetuate segregation.
National Review’s opposition to federal civil rights legislation put it at odds not only with self-proclaimed “modern Republicans” such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. (In 1957, years before he adopted the southern strategy, Nixon was one of the highest-profile defenders of civil rights in the Republican Party). But it also put him at odds with conservative Republicans, whom the magazine supported editorially, such as Senate Minority Leader William Knowland, the 1957 Civil Rights bill’s primary sponsor.
Buckley’s 1957 opposition to legislative and other attempts to enforce Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, betrayed more than a defense of the rights of states to impose segregation and unequal treatment of citizens, but also his reservations about democracy’s capacity to enhance freedom. In a subsequent editorial of “clarification,” Buckley proposed in the name of racial equality an alternative to disenfranchising all African Americans on account of their race: All states should disenfranchise the uneducated of all races. He saw no reason to confine such practices to the South. In Buckley’s view, too many ignorant people were being allowed to vote elsewhere.
As he contemplated the merits of the franchise and to whom to extend it, Buckley had restated views he had advanced while a student at Millbrook, his preparatory school. In a term paper he had written for his headmaster, Buckley maintained that uneducated voters might be manipulated by demagogues into surrendering some of their freedom in exchange for benefits raised through taxation of the citizenry. In staking out this position, Buckley was taking his place in a long line of conservative theorists beginning as far back as Aristotle, who saw in such democratic practices the roots of tyranny.
It was these intellectual currents that turned Buckley away from the Southern politicians of the time—and toward his reversal on civil rights.
At this time, a political transformation was taking place in the South, as the “old Bourbons,” with which he and his southern-rooted family identified, were being displaced in governors’ and congressional offices by a “new breed” of politicians that Buckley termed “welfare populists.” Whereas the Bourbons shunned harsher racial rhetoric and sought to break up the Ku Klux Klan, their successors practiced a more guttural and violent form of politics, especially crafted to crush, by whatever means, the aspirations of African-Americans in the region.
The Buckleys had ample experience with such politicians before and had come to treat them with contempt. Buckley’s uncle vividly recalled Buckley’s grandfather, John Buckley, the sheriff of Duval County, Texas, going into tirades against the “white trash of the town.” The uncle held them directly responsible for the voter fraud and intimidation of Mexican-Americans that resulted in the sheriff’s defeat at the polls.
By 1963, Buckley was voicing outrage at Southern populists like Alabama Governor George C. Wallace on two grounds: their agitation for greater federal intervention in the economy (a no-no among movement conservatives) and their refusal to extend the benefits of such largesse to African-Americans. It may have been his disdain for these kind of ideologically impure politicians that hastened Buckley’s eventual 180 on federal intervention. Looking back on the period in 2004, Buckley told Time magazine, “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong. Federal intervention was necessary.”
Buckley’s religious concerns rose up to meet his political ones. Privately, he was beginning to harbor doubts about legal segregation, a practice he had accepted without question his entire life. Early in 1963, he wrote his mother, the most religious person he knew, inquiring how she could “reconcile Christian fraternity” with “the separation of the races.” Aloise Buckley responded that she had gone to church and prayed for humility and wisdom from the Holy Spirit and that she would answer his question as the inspiration came to her.
That May, racial tensions mounted in Birmingham, Alabama, when Commission of Public Safety Bull Connor ordered hoses, nightsticks and dogs turned on young demonstrators. During these months, Buckley remained on an intellectual and emotional seesaw that still tilted southward. He wrote that the police had no alternative but to impose order and that the South could do without “massive infusions of northern moralism.” Yet he juxtaposed these statements with calls on Southerners to respect the right of people to demonstrate, lest they ease over into the “hands of the federal government … a greater and greater role in the revolution of Southern affairs.”
Then came the apparent turning point. Buckley was outraged when white supremacists set off a bomb in a Birmingham church on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four young African American girls. An early biographer reported that Buckley privately wept when he heard about the incident. He blamed Wallace for the tragedy. The Alabama governor’s “noisy opposition” to integration, Buckley wrote, had “galvanized the demon” who committed the murders in the name of “racial integrity.” Wallace, he said, sought to perpetuate himself in power by appealing to the racial resentments of those who had elected him.
As Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency unfolded, Buckley’s writings became increasingly sympathetic toward the cause of civil rights. African-Americans were upping their efforts to secure the right to vote in the South and Southern whites were showing increasing hostility, with the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilantes resorting to violence and terrorism. Gradually, but steadily, Buckley shifted his emphasis, directing his criticisms less against those who sought federal intervention and more toward those whose recalcitrance made that outcome inevitable. In his columns and elsewhere, Buckley ridiculed practices designed to keep African Americans off the voter registration rolls, such as demanding that those seeking to register to vote state the number of bubbles in a bar of soap.
In columns, he condemned proprietors of commercial establishments who declined service to African Americans in violation of the recently enacted 1964 Civil Rights Act. When future Georgia governor Lester Maddox, a known critic of the open public accommodation section of that law, chased African Americans out of his restaurant, wielding an axe handle, Buckley declared it “theoretically and morally inexplicable” that anyone would voice opposition to a law by retaliating against its “innocent beneficiaries.”
Increasingly, Buckley’s columns sounded less like apologias for segregation and more like lectures to Southern conservatives to obey laws and court orders. Gone too were references to the Southern “cause.” No longer was Buckley describing African Americans as less “advanced” than their white counterparts in the South. He showed little patience for whites he considered “primitives” (Southern politicians who incited racial violence and race-baited in their campaigns) and evidenced increased sympathy for their victims. And he demonstrated nothing but contempt for southern officials who evoked what he considered sound constitutional principles (such as federalism and states’ rights) solely to perpetuate a system that oppressed African Americans. Mississippi, he concluded, could not “have it both ways”: it could not preserve its right to set voting requirements while using race as the single criterion of voter eligibility.
Still, Buckley worried that once enfranchised, African-Americans in the South would prove just as easily manipulated by demagogues as other voters: “Too many countries in the democratic world have gone down into totalitarianism because some demagogue or other has persuaded everyone who can stagger to the polls to go there, and vote: usually to give power to himself.” The challenge, he wrote in a 1964 column, “is to lure to the polls those who will cast responsible votes.” He recounted how urban machines had sustained themselves in power by manipulating turnout and committing voter fraud, and wrote that he had seen how “welfare populists” had wrested control of southern state governments from the more genteel Bourbons by stirring up racial resentments among poor Southern whites.
In August 1965, after the Voting Rights Act became law, National Review praised the “seriousness and hope and quiet pride” it detected on the faces of African Americans lining up to vote in the South. It made reference to the religious roots of the civil rights movement and foresaw a major transformation of the region. Five years later, Buckley rejoiced in his column that so much had changed.
Buckley went on to cultivate a reputation for chasing out the anti-Semites and “kooks” out of conservatism. He disowned the fanaticism of Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society and barred any National Review writer from also writing for the American Mercury, a conservative magazine that had descended into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He urged readers not to vote for race-baiting politicians like Wallace and cheered when one remaining holdout of overt racism, conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick, gave up his opposition to federal desegregation.
Today, the Republican Party lacks a Buckley figure to purge these “kooks.” During Barack Obama’s first term, for instance, only a few brave souls like Sen. John McCain stood up to criticize birthers—and McCain was seen as a “maverick.” The sitting speaker, John Boehner, wouldn’t repudiate the birthers, telling reporters that it wasn’t up to him “to tell them what to think.”
We’ve seen the result of that, as “alt-rightists,” “economic nationalists” and ethnic supremacists enter the tent of the movement Buckley boasted he had rid of bigots. The moment may be at hand for another Buckley to step up to the plate and, as his transformation demonstrates, it may come from the most unexpected source.