On April 4, 2008, mourners gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to memorialize William F. Buckley, Jr., who had died five weeks earlier. That same Friday, mourners one thousand miles away gathered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to memorialize Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been murdered there exactly 40 years before.

The coincidence resonates. Drawing on exceptional rhetorical talents without ever being elected to public office, each man transformed the terrain where mere politicians clash. Buckley and King, born less than four years apart, both attained national prominence while still in their 20s. Buckley founded National Review in 1955; its first issue appeared two weeks before Rosa Parks set in motion the Montgomery bus boycott, which turned Dr. King into the nation’s preeminent black leader. Buckley and King went on to forge the conservative and civil rights movements, respectively, each of which reshaped American politics in the second half of the 20th century.

These two political movements were not, as conceived, antagonists. In its formative years the conservative movement was preoccupied with defeating international Communism and reversing the New Deal, while the civil rights movement existed to end Jim Crow. Neither objective required opposing, or even noticing, the other. The elaboration of each movement’s premises, however, quickly turned them into adversaries.

On the questions where the movements confronted each other directly the simplest judgment is that King was right and Buckley was wrong. Although Buckley’s personal generosity and talent for friendship resulted in warm tributes from writers on the Left, such as John Judis and James Galbraith, the first item always cited to disparage his legacy was Buckley’s record during the decade between the Montgomery bus boycott and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Buckley was not himself a bigot,” Tim Noah wrote in Slate the day Buckley died, “but he was at best blind and at worst indifferent to the bigotry all around him, and there can be no question that he stood in the way of racial progress.” In 2006 Noah’s Slate colleague, Daniel Gross, made the same point more heatedly:

At a time when a portion of the U.S. maintained a system of racial apartheid, Buckley and his magazine, time and time again, sided with the white supremacists. And in the decades since, I haven’t seen any evidence that he and his many acolytes are sorry, or ashamed—or that they’ve ever engaged in anything like an honest reckoning with their intellectual complicity in segregation.

These blunt judgments are similar to the one delivered from within conservative ranks by Jonah Goldberg in 2002:

Conservatives should feel some embarrassment and shame that we are outraged at instances of racism now that it is easy to be. Conservatives…were often at best MIA on the issue of civil rights in the 1960s. Liberals were on the right side of history on the issue of race. And conservatives should probably admit that more often.

All of Buckley’s writings are now available at Hillsdale College’s website. Through them runs the line Goldberg gently suggests, the one separating the ways conservatives avoided the campaign to end America’s caste system, from the ways they impeded that campaign.

Government and Race

Viewed from 2008, the movement Buckley led was detached from the civil rights struggle because conservatives, despite frequent and apparently sincere expressions of hope for racial harmony, rarely viewed the fight against pervasive, entrenched, and episodically brutal racial discrimination as a question of great moral urgency. Conservatives were personally opposed to Jim Crow as liberals of a later generation insisted they were personally opposed to abortion. Making the opposition personal was a way to keep the states, in the case of abortion, or the nation, when it came to segregation, from making it governmental.

Buckley did not mention race in his famous publisher’s statement in the inaugural issue of National Review. The magazine was going to stand athwart history and yell Stop. But it would be yelling at Communists, “jubilant” in the belief they had an “inside track to History,” and at liberals “who run this country” and who, having embraced relativism, rejected “fixed postulates…clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic” in favor of “radical social experimentation.”

It was within this framework that National Review conservatism addressed the issues raised by the civil rights movement. Integration and black progress were welcomed when they were the result of private actions like the boycotts of segregated buses or lunch counters, which Buckley judged “wholly defensible” and “wholly commendable.” He also praised a forerunner to the socially responsible mutual fund, an investment venture started in 1965 to raise capital for racially integrated housing developments, calling it “a project divorced from government that is directed at doing something about a concrete situation,” one that “depends for its success on the spontaneous support of individual people.”

The corollary was that conservatism opposed the civil rights agenda when it called for or depended on Big Government. “We frown on any effort of the Negroes to attain social equality by bending the instrument of the state to their purposes,” Buckley wrote in 1960.

But we applaud the efforts to define their rights by the lawful and non-violent use of social and economic sanctions which they choose freely to exert, and to which those against whom they are exerted are free to respond, or not, depending on what is in balance. That way is legitimate, organic progress.

This opposition to Big Government engendered conservative opposition to every milestone achievement of the civil rights movement. National Review denounced Brown v. Board of Education (1954), calling it “an act of judicial usurpation,” one that ran “patently counter to the intent of the Constitution” and was “shoddy and illegal in analysis, and invalid as sociology.” It opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act on similar grounds. A Buckley column dismissed the former as

a federal law, artificially deduced from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution or from the 14th Amendment, whose marginal effect will be to instruct small merchants in the Deep South on how they may conduct their business.

Senator Barry Goldwater used similar reasoning to justify voting against the bill on the eve of his general election contest with Lyndon Johnson. Saying he could find “no constitutional basis for the exercise of Federal regulatory authority” over private employment or public accommodations, Goldwater called the law “a grave threat” to a “constitutional republic in which fifty sovereign states have reserved to themselves and to the people those powers not specifically granted to the central or Federal government.” Goldwater arrived at this conclusion, according to Rick Perlstein’s book on the 1964 campaign, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), after receiving advice from two young legal advisors, William Rehnquist and Robert Bork.

Liberals and Conservatives

It would be unfair to leave the impression that conservatism was uniquely preoccupied with its own agenda as the civil rights cause was gaining salience. Liberals, too, had other fish to fry, such as consolidating and expanding the New Deal, prosecuting the containment doctrine against the Soviet Union, and forestalling any second act to McCarthyism. Adlai Stevenson won two Democratic presidential nominations, and numberless admirers among liberals, despite: selecting an Alabama segregationist, John Sparkman, to be his running mate in 1952; opposing (more forcefully than did President Eisenhower) any federal role in integrating Southern schools in 1956; and denouncing “the reckless assertions that the South is a prison, in which half the people are prisoners and the other half are wardens.”

One difference between Eisenhower-era liberals and conservatives is that the former kept their distance from the civil rights movement for practical reasons while the latter did so for principled ones. Democrats would imperil their chances for a majority in the Electoral College and Congress without the Solid South, a reality that constrained both FDR and JFK. Legend has Lyndon Johnson turning to an aide after signing the Civil Rights Act and saying that the Democrats had just lost the South for a generation. Johnson was the least politically naïve man in America, of course; he looked forward to an election victory and beyond it to forging a Great Society coalition that would secure Democratic victories without the New Deal coalition’s reliance on the South. Nevertheless, none of this was assured, and liberals have been nearly as reluctant as conservatives to praise the big political risk Johnson took for the sake of a deep moral conviction.

Having embraced the destruction of Jim Crow and the broader cause of promoting black progress, liberals’ belief in the federal government’s plenary power facilitated their support for any measure that would, or might, promote civil rights. Conservatives opposed to racial discrimination, however, had few obvious ways to act on that belief without abandoning their long, twilight struggle to re-confine the federal government within its historically defined riverbanks after the New Deal had demolished all the levees. Perlstein portrays Goldwater, a member of the NAACP who had fought against segregation in the Phoenix public schools while on the city council, as anguished by the choice between a moral and a constitutional imperative confronting him in the vote on the civil rights bill.

William Buckley’s writings, by contrast, leave the impression that he found the choice between civil rights and the Constitution of limited, enumerated powers regrettable but not especially difficult. (It’s worth noting that Buckley’s father, born in 1881, grew up in Texas, while his mother was born in 1895 and raised in New Orleans. The “cultural coordinates of our household were Southern,” Buckley wrote in his mother’s obituary.) If the conservative understanding of constitutional government meant that segregation would persist for decades…then segregation would persist. Conservatives “know that some problems are insoluble,” Buckley wrote in 1961. “Should we resort to convulsive measures that do violence to the traditions of our system in order to remove the forms of segregation in the South?” he asked. “I say no.” Instead, Buckley expressed the hope

that when Negroes have finally realized their long dream of attaining to the status of the white man, the white man will still be free; and that depends, in part, on the moderation of those whose inclination it is to build a superstate that will give them Instant Integration.

Forty years later Buckley and Michael Kinsley shared a series of email exchanges with the readers of Slate. The discussion turned to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, about which Kinsley offered the opinion “that using the power of the government to tell people whom they must do business with really is a major imposition on private freedom…. There’s no question the imposition is justified—and has been hugely successful—in rectifying the historical injustice to African-Americans.” Buckley, in a formulation John Kerry would have done well not to borrow, responded: “I’d have voted against the bill, but if it were out there today, I’d vote for it, precisely for the reason you gave.”

In other words, convulsive measures to overturn segregation were necessary. But then again perhaps not, since Buckley immediately goes on to tell Kinsley, “I’d vote with trepidation, however, for the obvious reason that successful results cannot necessarily legitimize the means by which they were brought about.” The desegregation omelet was worth making, but the limited government eggs might or might not have been worth breaking.

Buckley had his reasons, then, for opposing the civil rights movement. Even though he ultimately came to regard that movement’s initial and unassailable goal—the end of second-class citizenship in both its petty and vicious aspects—as the more compelling imperative, it was always a close call. Buckley never retracted his limited-government arguments against the civil rights agenda, nor did he relinquish the hope that civil rights could be advanced in ways that impinged only slightly on the conservative project of restoring the founders’ republic.

Worse than Missing in Action

The constitutional principles at the heart of this project were—are—ones that liberals find laughable, fantastic, and bizarre. Because they cannot take them seriously they reject the possibility that conservatives do. Thus, liberals dismiss “states’ rights” as nothing more than a code word for racism. There is no point in conservatives even asking what the code word for states’ rights is, because liberals cannot imagine anyone believes this to be a legitimate political concern.

From this viewpoint, conservatism’s “reasons” for opposing civil rights were, in fact and from the beginning, excuses for oppressing blacks. Buckley’s least judicious writings make it difficult to wave away that allegation. These are moments in conservatism’s history where it was, in Goldberg’s sense, worse than merely missing in action in the battle for racial equity.

Exhibit A, quoted triumphantly by Paul Krugman in his new book The Conscience of a Liberal, was a 1957 National Review editorial Buckley wrote, “Why the South Must Prevail.” In it, Buckley said that the “central question” is neither “parliamentary” nor one “that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal.” Rather, it 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?”

And? “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” In other words, the South “perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own,” an intention Buckley approves:

If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.

Buckley’s subsequent treatment of civil rights issues was more circumspect. In 1957 he regarded the whites’ civilization as more advanced both subjectively and objectively. The South perceives important differences between white and black culture, and the white community is the advanced race and what blacks would bring about is atavistic.

Later, Buckley emphasized only the subjective element. Abandoning the argument that whites were objectively more civilized, however, sometimes led to expressions of solicitude for Southern whites who were conspicuously uncivilized. A 1961 editorial beseeches readers to try to understand those whites who responded to the provocation posed by the Northern “Freedom Riders” by beating the crap out of a few of them. “Jim Crow at the bus stations strikes us as unnecessary, and even wrong,” Buckley said, but this is “irrelevant” because it “does not strike the average white Southerner as wrong.”

That is what they feel, and they feel that their life is for them to structure; that the Negro has grown up under generally benevolent circumstances, considering where he started and how far he had to go; that he is making progress; that the coexistence of that progress and the Southern way of life demand, for the time being, separation.

This was indeed what the South felt, or at least what it said it felt during the early years of the civil rights movement. Buckley’s characterization resembles that of the “Southern Manifesto,” signed in 1956 by nearly every senator and representative from the South. The Manifesto charged the Supreme Court’s Brown decision with

destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.

It’s hard for modern readers to decide whether cynicism, or delusion, explains such an assessment.

The single most disturbing thing about Buckley’s reactions to the civil rights controversies was the asymmetry of his sympathies—genuine concern for Southern whites beset by integrationists, but more often than not, perfunctory concern for Southern blacks beset by bigots. This disparity culminated in a position on violence committed by whites against blacks and civil rights activists that was reliably equivocal. Like the liberals of the 1960s who didn’t condone riots in Watts and Detroit but always understood them, Buckley regularly coupled the obligatory criticism of Southern whites’ violent acts with a longer and more fervent denunciation of the provocations that elicited them. Thus, “the nation cannot get away with feigning surprise” when a mob of white students attacks a black woman admitted to the University of Alabama by federal court order in 1956. “For in defiance of constitutional practice, with a total disregard of custom and tradition, the Supreme Court, a year ago, illegalized a whole set of deeply-rooted folkways and mores; and now we are engaged in attempting to enforce our law.” Thus, the Freedom Riders went into the South to “challenge with language of unconditional surrender” the whites’ “deeply felt” beliefs, and were “met, inevitably, by a spastic response. By violence.”

There is much to be said for the Burkean notion that social change unfolds best when it is the unplanned, incremental result of particular actions and concrete realities, rather than imposed sweepingly, from afar, on the basis of lofty abstractions. There is something to be said for the position that modern Burkeans can demonstrate their attachment to this idea by applying it to the hard cases as well as the easy ones. There is almost nothing to be said in defense of conservatives’ profound misjudgment about the civil rights movement. Their response to it was that the only solution to the problem of apartheid in the American South was to wait, for however many decades it required, for blacks’ infinite forbearance and whites’ latent decency to somehow work things out. To act more assertively, in this view, amounted to intolerable, heavy-handed social engineering, far worse than the problem that needed fixing.

The one thing in conservatives’ favor is that people passing judgment many years later on the conduct of historical actors in turbulent and fraught situations should remember that we know how the story turned out and they didn’t. The fact that “massive resistance” by irreconcilable Southern whites collapsed fairly quickly, rather than metastasizing into protracted and bloody chaos, doesn’t prove the chaos couldn’t possibly have happened, or that the conservatives who warned against it were either fools or hypocrites. This lone mitigation does not, however, absolve the conservatives who, confronted with the outrage of sanctioned racial oppression, calibrated how little rather than how much they could do to end it.

Fringe or Mainstream

Among conservatives in the 21st century—the ones in politics, journalism, and think tanks—99% would never praise segregation with faint damns, in print or even in thought. Many of them, born after the battle against Jim Crow was fought and settled, don’t even realize there is another 1%. It’s constituted by dogmatists who have extended the logic of libertarianism to blaming Big Government on Abraham Lincoln, then to admiring the Confederacy, and finally to speaking—both matter-of-factly and stridently—about the civilizational and genetic inferiority of blacks. When the mainstream conservatives do become acquainted with the fringe, either in print or in person, they quickly conclude that it’s populated by cranks and creeps.

There’s no rule, however, that a repellent person can’t have a legitimate gripe. The pariahs are entitled to ask whether they missed a memo. The rest of the conservatives quietly abandoned the old complacency about racial discrimination, but never really repudiated it. Though Randians, Birchers, and anti-Semites were expelled from the conservative movement in the 1950s, all were extended the courtesy of eviction notices in National Review. A decade later, apologetics for the brutality of Jim Crow disappeared from NR’s pages, but without explanation. By 1968 Buckley was telling George Wallace on “Firing Line” that the constitutional rights of the people of Alabama were being trampled—but he was referring to blacks’ rights to demonstrate and vote, not to whites’ rights to perpetuate segregation. Buckley himself seemed bewildered by this pivot. “Honestly,” he said to Wallace, “you’re forcing me to sound like a liberal, which has never happened to me before in my entire life.”

In December 2002 Trent Lott resigned as the Senate majority leader after it was revealed he had said,

When [in 1948] Strom Thurmond ran [as a “Dixiecrat”] for president, we [in Mississippi] voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.

Charles Krauthammer accused Lott of “historical blindness that is utterly disqualifying for national office.” William Buckley wrote that,

whatever else is to be said about the old South, segregation was an ugly feature of it, and that to think back poignantly about how it was in those golden days requires, if you are a public figure doing the nostalgia, the reiterated expulsion of features of that life.

According to Jonah Goldberg,

Racism, at least the open and active racism which sustained the 1948 Dixiecrat vision, is simply astoundingly rare on the Right. In fact, prior to Trent Lott’s idiocy, most conservatives I know would have assumed it did not exist at all—except among the fever swamps of the so-called paleo-Right.

In rebuttal, one resident of that swamp, Paul Craig Roberts, approvingly cited another:

It was left to the libertarian Llewellyn Rockwell to point out that, fundamentally, states’ rights is about the Tenth Amendment, not segregation. Thurmond’s political movement sought a return to the enumerated powers guaranteed by the Constitution to the states.

This was exactly the position taken by Buckley in a 1956 National Review editorial:

[S]upport for the Southern position rests not at all on the question whether Negro and White children should, in fact, study geography side by side; but on whether a central or a local authority should make that decision.

It’s a position he reiterated in a 1962 column, which acknowledged at some length “the suspicion that the entire white Southern community is simply seeking, in its war against the Negro, to find a respectable terminology through which to fight that fight.” Nonetheless, the South’s “political cause is admirable,” because “It is the cause of home rule, and it is the essence of the American system.”

Conservatism won’t be undone because an embittered fringe insists that it alone remains true to the faith abandoned by the faint-hearted mainstream. The real danger comes from adversaries who insist the fringe embodies the movement better than the mainstream. The Lott story was driven by liberals, principally the blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, who believe—or avail themselves of the political advantages of professing to believe—that the essence of conservatism is and always has been Dixiecrat-ism. This is not a point of antiquarian interest; the clear implication is that everything that conservatism has accomplished and stood for since 1965—Reagan, the tax revolt, law-and-order, deregulation, the fight against affirmative action, the critique of the welfare state…everything—is the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree.

Lines in the Sand

Harsh as it is, this liberal accusation misses an important point: the hardest question the triumph of the civil rights movement raises about conservatism is not whether its stated purpose of restoring the founders’ republic was a ruse designed to perpetuate racial inequality. Rather, it is to what extent that sincerely held belief was ever feasible and coherent. The troubling incongruity is not conservatives’ initial tolerance of segregation for the sake of limited government, but the later, tacit admission that America did well to expand the purview of the federal government in order to end Jim Crow. Trent Lott had only to suggest lightly that relying on those means to secure that end was still regrettable to set off a stampede of conservatives to denounce him.

The problem is that conservatives’ acquiescence, long after the fact, in using Big Government to abolish segregation is the kind of exception that devours the rule rather than proving it. This is so particularly because it is not the lone exception. To take one example, modern conservatives have been more disposed than liberals to say that the exigencies of the wars against Communism and Islamic terrorism require, in George Will’s disapproving words, the “silent repeal” of the Constitution’s assignment to Congress of important powers over whether to go to war and how to wage it.

By the same token, conservatives have long agreed with liberals that the imperative to maintain and expand prosperity requires a federal government equipped with all the powers it needs to accomplish that goal. This was the burden of an article Walter Lippmann wrote in 1935, “The Permanent New Deal.” He deduced the permanency by arguing that the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations had spent the foregoing six years contending with the Depression in ways that were far more similar than different. The bitter arguments of the day, according to Lippmann, masked the fact that Hoover and FDR had much more in common with one another than either did with their immediate yet distant predecessor, Calvin Coolidge. The bipartisan embrace of federal intervention for the sake of prosperity, continuing by such means and until such time as prosperity is restored, meant that the Coolidgean idea that it was better to suffer macroeconomic dislocations than constitutional ones was a dead letter.

Conservatives spent the 20th century drawing lines in the sand, in other words, before stepping back to draw new lines after the old ones were disdainfully trespassed. It’s the kind of thing that leads to credibility issues. Conservatives drew a line against the civil rights movement, asserting that the republic would be irreparably harmed if the federal government arrogated to itself the powers necessary to end segregation. They eventually came to regard this line, too, drawn in front of a federal government confined to its limited, enumerated powers and by the need to respect states’ rights, as politically and morally indefensible. By 2001 William Buckley, like the overwhelming majority of conservatives, had long since discarded the idea that segregation was one of those insoluble problems we had no choice but to live with. The qualification of his retrospective support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the success of which “cannot necessarily legitimize the means” that brought it about—makes sense only if there was at least one alternative way to achieve the same result without augmenting Big Government.

Conservatives have offered some trenchant criticisms of the civil rights movement over the past half century. Many commentators, not all of them conservative, have contended that Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated that jurists are foolish to base epochal decisions on social science research they have no competence to evaluate, as they did with Kenneth Clark’s problematic black and white dolls experiment. The misguided foray into sociology undermined the work the justices were qualified and authorized to carry out, the interpretation and application of the law, and the articulation of its principles. Although the Court gave the NAACP a policy victory, it denied the legal victory the plaintiffs sought, the explicit repudiation of Plessy v. Ferguson‘s doctrine of “separate but equal” in favor of the principle, articulated by Justice John Marshall Harlan as the lone dissenter in Plessy, that “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” The failure, or refusal, to make that simple point left the door ajar for all the subsequent assaults on logic and republicanism committed in the name of civil rights—affirmative action, set-asides, race-normed employment tests, busing, and tortuously drawn “majority-minority” legislative districts.

The Best vs. the Good

It’s not clear, however, that such criticisms add up to a road not taken, an alternative assault on sanctioned racial discrimination. And even if they did, would this more conservative and more constitutionally scrupulous civil rights movement have ended Jim Crow as decisively as the historical one? Allowing that counterfactual questions are inherently unanswerable, it’s hard to see that segregationists would have been any more receptive to a desegregation campaign waged on these terms, or that they would have had a harder time resisting it.

The other question is whether this hypothetical alternative to the civil rights movement would have elicited a warmer response from conservatives than the actual civil rights movement did. This, too, is doubtful, given Buckley’s opposition to any black efforts to “attain social equality by bending the instrument of the state to their purposes.” It’s difficult to imagine, in other words, a solution to the problem of segregation in which the powers asserted by the federal government were both large enough to accomplish the task and small enough to satisfy conservatives wary about the growth of Big Government.

In the statement explaining his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act Barry Goldwater said that if the people really want the federal government to undertake the tasks set out in the bill, they should amend the Constitution to give the government those powers. But such statements from conservatives were conversation stoppers rather than conversation starters. The point was not to offer, or convey the urgent need to develop, an alternative to the constitutionally reckless approach of the civil rights movement to ending segregation. It was to suggest that there was no alternative to that reckless approach and that, therefore, the least bad thing to do about segregation was to wait and hope for the sensibilities of the segregationists to yield gradually to the imperatives of a humane conscience.

Modern conservatives, those not members of the irreconcilable fringe, count the advances in racial tolerance over the last half century as one of America’s proudest accomplishments. The ease with which whites once uttered venomous remarks about blacks and shrugged off racist actions toward them is scarcely believable today. The soundest reading of Buckley’s insistence on “organic” progress was that the only safe and legitimate path to those markedly different sentiments was through incremental changes in attitudes in response to social rather than political pressures. There is no way of knowing whether that train, running on those tracks, would have ever come into the station. The pace of its progress prior to 1955 was hardly breathtaking. We do know that the civil rights movement catalyzed a revolution in Americans’ minds, one that no mainstream conservative wishes could be undone. Asked by Time in 2004 whether he regretted any positions he had taken in the past, Buckley said simply, “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

Any political movement that looks back in relief and gratitude on the battles it lost needs to take inventory. The conservative movement in the first decade after the founding of National Review insisted that the only acceptable response to Jim Crow was one that furthered the conservative goal of delegitimizing the New Deal. This was a textbook example of letting the best be the enemy of the good. By holding out for such a solution, conservatives squandered the opportunity to fashion a constitutionally principled argument in favor of either augmenting the federal government’s powers so they were equal to the task of ending Jim Crow, or activating latent powers afforded by the Constitution that were not being brought to bear against segregation. To the urgent insistence that ending segregation justified the government in doing whatever it had to do, conservatives responded by calling for the indefinite reliance on other people’s patience.

For the want of that nail, much was lost. Conservatives have spent half a century trying to overcome the suspicion that they are indifferent to black Americans’ legitimate demands, and indulgent towards people who are blatantly hostile to blacks. As a result, the party of Lincoln has become much whiter as it has become more conservative. Dwight Eisenhower got 40% of the black vote in 1956, the first presidential election after the Brown decision and the Montgomery boycott. Barry Goldwater got 6% in 1964, and in the ten subsequent presidential elections the Republican candidate’s performance has never been more than a slight improvement on Goldwater’s. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued in the Atlantic Monthly, a sizeable portion of the black electorate consists of latent conservatives “who favor hard work and moral reform over protests and government intervention.” Invariably, however, the black American who feels this way “votes Democratic, not out of any love for abortion rights or progressive taxation, but because he feels—in fact, he knows—that the modern-day GOP draws on the support of people who hate him.”

The “honest reckoning with their intellectual complicity with segregation” that Daniel Gross called for is, however, more than a propitiation conservatives owe blacks. It’s also a duty they owe their own best ideas. The obtuseness about segregation, the big way in which Buckley and the conservatives were wrong, obscures all the important ways they were right, and prescient.

Getting It Right

Conservatives’ complicity with segregation made it easy for liberals to dismiss all their arguments against the post-1965 civil rights agenda. Conservatives are not the only ones today who have reason to regret that conservative arguments of an earlier day were ignored. It would be as hard today to find a liberal who thinks busing was a good idea, a well-considered venture we should eagerly try again, as to find a conservative willing to accept the resegregation of restaurants in order to effect the reinvigoration of the Commerce Clause. Conservatives tried to draw the line in an indefensible place, holding out for a solution to segregation that involved no expansion or invigoration of government at all. In doing so, they ceded moral authority to those who insisted there should be no lines whatsoever, who were determined to embrace any expansion of government that might further the nebulously defined goal of racial justice. Liberals came to grief over civil rights because they had no stopping point, while conservatives came to grief because they had no starting point.

As a result, conservatives have had to struggle for 40 years to assert the standing to criticize the civil rights movement’s excesses. Conservatives were right, for example, about the extent and implications of Martin Luther King’s enterprise. King has been turned into a dashboard saint for the anodyne, apolitical cause of human brotherhood. There’s insufficient recollection of the King who in 1967 called for “a radical revolution of values” to “get on the right side of the world revolution” against a society where “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”

By 1979 Buckley urged, ungrudgingly, a national holiday in recognition of King’s “courage,” the “galvanizing quality” of his rhetoric, and his role as “the black American who consummated the civil war Abraham Lincoln undertook, largely animated by his belief in metaphysical equality.” Buckley sensed early on, however, that the consummation of the Civil War was not the consummation of King’s ambitions, and that a radical leftward shift of America’s foreign policy and political economy was.

Buckley understood as well that the civil rights movement was fully prepared to resort to expansive methods to achieve its expansive goals. The point of “nonviolent direct action,” according to King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” was to “create such a crisis,” “foster such a tension,” and “so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” King’s stipulation, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” was likely to prove a thin membrane restraining the individual conscience free to decide which laws were just or unjust, and therefore deserved to be obeyed or violated.

At the time of his murder, King was planning a Poor People’s Campaign that, according to a recent CNN story, intended to “paralyze the nation’s capital” if the government refused to enact an “economic bill of rights for poor people,” part of, in King’s words, the “radical redistribution of economic power” America required. It was in keeping with an agenda King had announced the previous year, and which Buckley had derided:

Now Dr. Martin Luther King proposes massive “dislocations.” Not violent dislocations, understand. Just “massive civil disobedience,” like blocking plant gates, highways, government operations, sit-ins in federal buildings, that kind of thing. But not violent, repeat. The man reporting to work at his factory is not expected to press his way through Dr. King’s human wall, nor the wife driving her car to pick up her child at school, to trample the toes of the satyagrahi. No violence, just a national convulsion.

In 1969 Buckley wrote, “Dr. King’s discovery of the transcendent rights of the individual conscience is the kind of thing that killed Jim Crow all right. But it is also the kind of thing that killed Bobby Kennedy.” Though King and Malcolm X are usually recalled as opposites, the Franciscan and the militant, Buckley’s argument is that the logic of King’s position carried him closer and closer to the stance, By Any Means Necessary, associated with Malcolm. That assertion would have gained more traction had it not been for Buckley’s earlier expressions of sympathy for those who defended segregation by any means necessary.

The Gift of Affirmative Action

As it happens, “By Any Means Necessary” is the name of a group that agitates on behalf of affirmative action. (Among other things. Its full name is the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary.) Affirmative action has been the civil rights movement’s political gift to the conservative movement. Conservatives have been delighted by the chance, finally, to present themselves as the ones articulating a principled egalitarian argument on behalf of innocent people whose prospects in life were diminished when they were judged according to the color of their skin rather than the content of their characters.

Since conservatives strenuously opposed all the major civil rights laws, they can’t really be aghast that liberals are not eager to sign off on their interpretation of what the laws demand and proscribe. Barry Goldwater criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only because its provisions “fly in the face of the Constitution,” but because they “require for their effective execution the creation of a police state,” which sounds a lot over the top. Though he was wrong about its enforcement, Goldwater had grasped something important about the law, especially the employment discrimination provisions: the new crimes, by and large, were going to be thought-crimes. Employers who were stupid and racist enough to actually announce they didn’t hire blacks couldn’t possibly be the only ones the law was meant to sanction. There had to be some way to protect blacks who were the victims of covert rather than overt discrimination.

The problem is that one employer’s—or bureaucrat’s, or judge’s—covert discrimination is another’s good-faith effort to hire and retain the best available workforce at market wages. Goldwater anticipated that endless disputes over why Jones was really promoted over Smith would result in

the development of an “informer” psychology in great areas of our national life—neighbors spying on neighbors, workers spying on workers, businessmen spying on businessmen, where those who would harass their fellow citizens for selfish and narrow purposes will have ample inducement to do so.

To their credit, the civil rights enforcers declined to turn America into East Germany for the sake of equal opportunity.

To their discredit, the civil rights enforcers decided that since hiring processes were essentially thought processes, and therefore difficult to police, the thing to regulate would be hiring results, which were easy to police. The employer whose workforce was a perfect miniature of the local labor market had nothing to worry about. The bigger the demographic disparity between the employee roster and the phonebook, the more explaining the employer would have to do.

One might have expected that businessmen would push back against the bureaucrats leaning on them about which employees to hire, retain, and promote. In fact, the spirit of the shrewd Yankee trader, looking for an edge, triumphed over the spirit of the don’t-tread-on-me patriot. Each employer realized that every other firm in his industry faced the same regulatory regime, so there was no competitive disadvantage to complying with it. Firms that become adept at pursuing ordinary business objectives while avoiding exposure to equal opportunity litigation would secure an advantage, particularly against smaller competitors not yet savvy about gaming the system and more dependent on getting just the right workers in the right jobs. As a last resort, while all sorts of ostensibly race-neutral personnel practices have gotten employers into trouble if they had a “disparate impact” on racial minorities, the disparate impact test has never been applied to business decisions about where to locate factories and offices. This is why the civil rights law is sometimes referred to as the Minnesota Full Employment Act.

The conservative argument against affirmative action is that it’s a brazen violation of the letter and spirit of the civil rights laws, the most flagrant bait-and-switch operation in American political history. Among the rebuttals, the weakest is “So what?”—the purpose of the law was to help blacks and those enforcing it have set out to do so by, well, any means necessary. The strongest though least admirable is caveat emptor—if you’d read the fine print you would have seen that the potential, the inevitability, of affirmative action was there all along. Conservatives warned that the civil rights movement would create a superstate, and that didn’t happen. What did happen is that interest-group liberalism extended its regime of “policy without law,” in Theodore Lowi’s phrase, to the adjudication of civil rights.

Doing the Right Thing

William Buckley wrote about affirmative action less often, and less angrily, than other conservatives. For someone accused of standing in the way of racial progress, he regularly addressed the issue by expressing hope for a solution that promoted racial reconciliation and black advancement. As early as 1968, writing on the fierce battle between black radicals and white public school teachers in New York City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, Buckley listed himself as one who approved of “discriminatory hiring in favor of blacks”—provided that “the concomitant obligation to protect the whites whose jobs are taken” was discharged. By 1977, as the Bakke case was being considered by the Supreme Court, he was retrieving the Burkean perspective he had applied to the South. Blacks’ problems, he said,

are best handled by the myriad decisions reached in a million situations every day…. The employer who surveys the application forms of a half-dozen candidates for an opening and quietly gives the advantage to the black candidate is, in my opinion, doing the right thing. But what he did could not stand the test of universalization. You could not take that discreet preferment and write legislation about it.

Buckley and the early National Review conservatives went too far in hoping that such discreet preferments would suffice to end Jim Crow. Their subsequent acknowledgments that the suffering and national disgrace caused by segregation required stronger measures have not satisfied their opponents. Given the political advantages to liberals of conflating racism and conservatism, it’s doubtful there is any degree of contrition they would find acceptable.

Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement went too far in the other direction, overconfident about the large benefits and negligible costs of politicizing all the spaces in which Americans live their lives. The lesson that federal government intervention could extinguish the wickedness of segregation was learned too well, and reinforced the liberal conviction that government could—and therefore must—intervene to eradicate every social ill, no matter how large or amorphous, affecting minority groups. The higher lawlessness of civil disobedience was absorbed by the lower lawlessness of interest-group liberalism. Myriad decisions in a million situations—such as job interviews, college applications, and training programs—need now comply with federal “standards” that are rarely clear or constant, and are always subject to further revisions driven by perpetual interest-group lobbying. Any reckoning of what William Buckley and the conservatives failed to see in the civil rights era must also account for these deformities, which they did see and which everyone else missed.

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For Correspondence on this essay, click here (Spring 2009) and here (Fall 2008).