I’ll be curious to see what the obituaries are like for James Jackson Kilpatrick, the newspaper columnist who died last night. Although his name has lost its luster in recent years, Kilpatrick was a very important figure in the 1960s and 1970s, ranking only behind William F. Buckley as the nation’s leading conservative writer. Kilpatrick was also an unabashed racist, who owed much of his fame to his willingness to attack the Civil Rights movement.
In her superb book Freedom Is Not Enough (Harvard University Press, 2006), historian Nancy MacLean provides a good summary of Kilpatrick’s politics in the 1960s:
Answering [the Civil Right march in Birmingham in 1963], James Kilpatrick, the rising star in the conservative firmament, made his movement’s premises more explicit. “This precious right to discriminate,” he argued, ”underlines our entire political and economic system.” As for the Negro claiming the right to inclusion, why, he had sat out the whole industrial revolution. “He is still carrying the hod… still digging the ditch,” because that’s all he had bestirred himself to do. “The hell he is equal,” Kilpatrick exclaimed. “He has no right … to favored treatment in employment, promotion, or anything else.” White Americans should rise in “resentment,” he argued, against “those who demand in the name of race what they have not earned in the way of worth.” Pioneering “in-your-face” politics, Kilpatrick used the podium at a conference on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation to force into public discussion “inquiry into the possibility of some innate inferiority in the Negro race.” He complained that blacks were being “petted and pampered, cuddled and coddled” by “reverse racism,” an interesting line of attack, since simple equal opportunity, much less affirmative action, had not yet been accepted as public policy. Far from rendering Kilpatrick marginal, such outburst won him a lucrative platform as a national spokesman for the cause. In 1964 the Newsday syndicate hired him to write a weekly column, “A Conservative View,” soon carried by fifty newspapers. By 1970 I was appearing there times a week in 170 newspapers across the country; it’s author would be invited to dine at the Nixon White House, was featured as a writer for Nation’s Business, and was given a weekly television spot on 60 Minutes. – p. 63
By the 1970s, such open arguments for white supremacy were no longer politically acceptable. As MacLean documents, Kilpatrick’s private correspondence reveals that he was still a racist, but he had learned to hide his views. While he would no longer openly advocate white supremacist ideas, he would carry on the war by subterfuge by attacking social programs aimed at helping African-Americans:
It required steady herding by [conservative] movement leaders to keep such rank-and-file followers “above’ racism when it was racial antipathy that had attracted so many to the right in the first place, a tutoring best revealed to posterity in personal correspondence. When criticized by an annoyed segregationist for apologizing for “your former views regarding racial integration,” Kilpatrick hastened to set the “record straight”: “I did not say I was sorry for my former views on racial integration. I said, very carefully, that I was sorry I ever defended the practice of State-sanctioned segregation. There is a world of difference. Neither did I ‘belatedly come to the conclusion that I was wrong about my former stand on equality of the races.’ As I tried to make clear, I belatedly came to the conclusion that I was wrong about my former stand on the rightness of State-sanctioned discrimination.” (p. 257)
Later in life, Kilpatrick would often use the language of colour-blindness to attack affirmative action. Given his past and his private views, it was difficult to give credence to the honesty of his position.
In a more rational world, Kilpatrick’s death would be an occasion for an important and necessary debate about the role of race in American politics, about the centrality of racial resentment to the conservative movement of the 1950s and 1960s, about the way that racists like Kilpatrick were allowed to whitewash their past and downplay their role as advocates of segregation, about the curious role of the many newspaper editors and television producers who gave Kilpatrick venues for spreading his racial ideas. Unfortunately, the world is not as rational as it should be, and I expect to see many mealy-mouthed obituaries about how Kilpatrick was a sweet old man who might have had a few wrong-headed ideas when young but who grew wiser with age. In fact, Kilpatrick never genuinely repented his racism, and until his legacy is described accurately there will be no full reckoning with the past.