Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Conservatives and the Civil Rights Movement

Bill Burman

What was the political stance of most conservatives toward the Civil Rights Movement?

On May 26th, 2010 conservative talk show host Glen Beck made an astonishing claim on his nationally syndicated radio show. “We are on the right side of history! We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties, and dammit, we will reclaim the civil rights movement. We will take that movement—because we were the people who did it in the first place.”

This certainly would have been news to Rosa Parks, Barbara Johns, Charles Houston, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and others who risked their lives to secure civil rights for black Americans. Presumably, Beck meant that conservatives were “the people who did it,” although he later added that he wanted to reclaim the civil rights movement “from politics.”

This is also a puzzling statement, given that the Civil Rights Movement was a series of inherently political acts: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus; sixteen year old Barbara Johns organizing black high school students to protest the tar paper shack schools they were forced to attend; student organizers risking their lives to register black voters. These actions led to other political acts, such as the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and Congress passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Apparently, in Beck’s mind, the Civil Rights Movement was a warm, misty-eyed love of country and “individual rights” which emanated from the swelling hearts of conservative patriots and transformed the country with no significant political action or legislation required.

Amidst the controversy surrounding Beck’s remarks, little has been said about what conservatives actually did during the civil rights era and the years following it. One does not need to look too far to see that conservatives were largely against the Civil Rights movement. Two of the greatest icons of the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, exemplified conservative opposition to the movement.

Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona and Lyndon Johnson’s opponent in the 1964 presidential election, was in the vanguard of a new movement within the Republican Party. Alienated from the eastern, old guard of the party, which had made peace with some aspects of the New Deal, Goldwater’s caustic conservatism appealed to a rising elite from newer industries, real estate, and car dealerships in the “Sunbelt” of the South, Southwest, and West. The senator had also endeared himself to racist whites in the South and elsewhere by voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had illegalized racial discrimination in employment, schools, hospitals, restaurants, hotels and theaters.

Goldwater’s harsh persona, however, frightened many Americans, and he was easily crushed by Johnson in the 1964 election. Still, he had won five states in the South, and the lesson of the electoral benefits of exploiting the white backlash against civil rights was not lost on the Republican Party. Richard Nixon would employ the “Southern Strategy,” a plan designed to harvest the votes of whites disaffected by civil rights and the 1960s counter culture, to retake the White House in 1968.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan, a genial television personality and former film actor, launched his political career at the 1964 Republican Convention, speaking in support of Goldwater and individual rights, a term frequently invoked to justify the rights of individuals to discriminate against racial groups they despised. Elected Governor of California in 1966, Reagan became the darling of conservatives in the sixties and seventies.

When Reagan ran for president in 1980, he kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964, and spoke in favor of states’ rights and limiting the power of the federal government. In retrospect, it is astonishing that a presidential candidate in 1980 could oppose federal power in connection with civil rights, given the crucial, if imperfect role the federal government had played in codifying civil rights with Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Conservative Intellectuals and Grassroots Organizations

Conservative politicians were not devising their strategies on civil rights in a vacuum. Conservative intellectuals and grassroots political organizations were playing the tune of “individual rights” and speaking out against the Civil Rights Movement as well. The National Review, a magazine founded by conservative ideologue William F. Buckley, Jr., had supported black disenfranchisement in the South on the basis that “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” The Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group founded in 1960 awarded its “Freedom Award” to arch-segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond in 1962.

In earlier years Democrats had been anything but heroic on civil rights. John F. Kennedy dragged his feet on civil rights legislation out of fear of alienating the party's southern brethren. FDR had refused to support a national anti-lynching law for the same reason. It should also be noted that most northern Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 along with most northern Democrats, and almost all southern Democrats, many of whom would become Republicans in the following years, voted against it. But Lyndon Johnson’s push for civil rights legislation drove the white South into his opponents’ camp, and the Republican Party was not about to question the racial motivations of their new voters.

In the future, if Glen Beck wants to honor the Civil Rights Movement, he might consider staying home, and watching the video series “Eyes on the Prize,” which will teach him about the heroic political actions of people like Barbara Johns, Charles Houston, Medgar Evers, and others.

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