Civil Rights & Civil Wrongs
How the Right Responded and Responds to Demands by Civil Rights Activists[i]
By Georg Wolff
In an academia where fetishized innovation breeds sensationalist mediocrity, where ‘new’ and ‘good’ are used interchangeably, it is a rare occurrence that a historiographic work achieves the appropriate half-life to be considered a true classic. George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976) is perhaps one of the rare exceptions. In it, Nash set out to explain what American intellectual conservatism in the decades preceding its publication had been all about (Nash 1976, xii). He concluded that three groups drove its development: classical liberals (to avoid terminological confusion we’ll call them libertarians) wanted to get the state out of the economy and individual lives; “new conservatives” (decades later, they’re now known as social conservatives or traditionalists) inferred from the excesses of totalitarian, secular mass societies of the 1930s and 1940s that society needed moral absolutes to combat the relativism that had so corrupted it; and anti-communist zealots, often former comrades themselves, that warned of a “titanic” struggle between communism and freedom (a.k.a. the West) that could end only with the extinction of one or the other (Nash 1976, xiii). What united these incoherent ideologues with one another was their shared disdain of liberalism. During the years of the post-war consensus (roughly 1945 to 1964), when both parties in the U.S. prominently featured liberal elements in their platforms (devoted conservatives called Eisenhower’s ‘Modern Republicanism’ that incorporated and expanded on some aspects of the New Deal ‘Me-too-Republicanism’), this conservative vanguard built forums of discussion (the most important being National Review, for which Nash himself frequently wrote), and gradually aligned its beliefs into an ideology called “fusionism” (Nash 1976, 131–185).[ii]
While historians enthusiastically embraced Nash’s account when they revived the study of conservatism’s history following the Reagan era, his former brothers-in-arms were a bit more skeptical. For example, Robert ‘Bob’ Moffit, a fellow member of the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), now at the Heritage Foundation, warned in a review of Nash’s work that “[p]hilosophical difficulties and consequent differences of opinion have not been resolved, and for all the talk of “Fusionism”, these theoretical contradictions are probably irreconcilable” (Moffit 1977, 30). A similar critique was levelled at Nash by liberal historians, one of whom suggested that fusionism might be little more than “a formalistic attempt to paper over an unbridgeable ideological fault[.] Are readers to believe that free enterprise economics and libertarian social theory have been successfully reconciled with traditionalism and its emphasis on community, order, virtue and prescriptive rights?” (Lora 1977, 1069). But these reviews somewhat missed their target. As a former activist himself, Nash had experienced how fusionism might work in practice (even though his book was all about the theory). One particularly poignant example is the conservative response to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Historians have long argued that race and a backlash against the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement were factors, if not the factor, in the rise of conservatism since the 1960s (cf. Carter 2000; 2001, Crespino 2007, Flamm 2005, Kruse 2005, Lassiter 2007). If this and Nash’s thesis are both correct, there should be evidence of fusionism in conservatives’ responses to the Civil Rights Movement. I will argue in this essay that there is, and that these findings have some implications for contemporary conservative discourse.
First of all, each of the three ideological strands had its distinct argument against the movement: anti-communists pointed to connections between civil rights leaders and communist activists to suggest that the movement had been duped by communists and was, perhaps unwittingly, working toward their sinister goals; libertarians feared that federal intervention in the civil rights question, particularly in what they deemed to be private interactions between individuals, might lead government to unduly and permanently expand its powers; and lastly, social conservatives argued that because they had employed civil disobedience and looked towards government to fix their problems, African Americans had developed a disrespect for law and order and an entitlement mentality.
When segregation by law slowly became disrespectable to a national audience in the 1950s, proponents came up with a new strategy: by framing resistance to integration in anti-communist terms, they could position themselves on the ‘right’ side of the struggle in the McCarthy- and Cold War eras (Lewis 2005, 117–119). If segregationists could manage to make the debate all about supposed communists in the movement, they could delegitimize their opponents without ever engaging either their demands or concepts like race (Rolph 2012, 23–24). While McCarthyism had fallen out of favor nationally after the senator’s censure in 1954, many conservatives, especially in the South, never came to truly believe that the Wisconsin senator had been wrong (Katagiri 2014, xv). If anything, their hero’s downfall by the hands of the establishment cemented their worldview (Wolff 2021, 62–63). Works such as Behind the Civil Rights Mask (1965), authored by Lee Edward (now a colleague of Moffit’s at the Heritage Foundation) and Terry Catchpole, thus fell on fertile soil. Ostensibly simply a collection of quotes by civil rights leaders, the authors supplemented them with a framing introductory essay and commentary on the quotes. The Civil Rights Movement, they argued, had long departed from demanding “just civil rights […] [f]ar exceed[ing] their initial concern with equal rights”, their new goal was “social and economic revolution” (Edwards and Catchpole 1965, VI). The Civil Rights Movement, they continued, ran the risk of becoming infiltrated by communists wholesale. Thus, only a mass-purge of those communists could return the movement to its original path. This, however, is a rhetorical ploy: since such communists could seldom be identified beyond vague accusations (and, perhaps, never existed), a purge was not going to happen. The argument thus aimed not at restoring the movement to its supposed original goals, but to delegitimize it in its entirety.
In contrast to this red-baiting, the libertarian argument was no ad hominem attack. Instead, they questioned the constitutionality of civil rights legislation. They, too, tried to reframe the discussion by shifting the focus away from how African Americans would gain equal rights through such legislation to how other (implicitly white) rights would be infringed by it. For example, they viewed Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in places of ‘public’ accommodation engaged in interstate commerce such as hotels and restaurants, or Title VII, which prohibited race-based discrimination in the hiring process, as attacks on property rights. Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, conservative standard bearer, and GOP presidential nominee in 1964, argued that the government lacked a constitutional basis to interfere in what he deemed private business relations (Goldwater 1964, 39–40; 94–97; 2009, 84–85). Another such supposedly endangered right was the ‘right to association’, meaning the ability to discriminate in choosing associates for private clubs etc. For Nash’s YAF comrades, this above all meant preventing the forced integration of Greek Letter Societies. Here, they scored an important victory in inserting an amendment (Title V, Sec. 104 (6)) that prevented federal institutions from investigating membership practices of fraternal organizations (Civil Rights Act of 1964; Freeman 2012).
Jarret Wollstein, another YAFer and later a prominent libertarian (he co-founded Liberty International), made a distinctly traditionalist argument: “Legislation”, he proposed, “cannot make the Negro equal: only the Negro can make himself equal” (Wollstein 1968, 11). Indeed, every legislative attempt was bound to fail, since legislation could only alleviate the symptoms, not the causes of the African American plight. New welfare laws would create an entitlement mentality and thus stifle attempts at self-improvement. The result, Wollstein argued, was a fundamental conflict of values: “American society holds productivity as a value—but many poor Negroes are demanding larger handouts. American society values personal initiative and responsibility—most Negroes are demanding that the government see to it that they have jobs and social acceptance”. Given time, civil rights would thus turn into “civil riots” (Wollstein 1968, 12). A similar point was made by Chicago economist and future Nobel Prize laureate George Stigler: civil rights leaders pointed to the white majority as the gatekeepers of full African American participation in society. Yet, Stigler argued, “it was a terrible disservice to identify the white man as the main obstacle to the rise of the Negro […] because it must lead to hatred, and hatred to violence, and violence to the retardation of the mounting compassion […] of the white man.” Stigler acknowledged the existence of discrimination; however, he reversed the causality: it was not discrimination that led to civil unrest but the other way round. Like Wollstein, he argued for African American self-improvement: “The American Negro is a lesser citizen? To the barricades! No—to the home and church and schools” (Stigler 1965, 11–12).
While I have tried to compartmentalize these different strains of arguments, conservatives often used them in conjunction with one another. For example, a New Guard (the official YAF magazine) article listed (among others, some also supportive of some of the movement’s demands) these ‘truths’ in the civil rights question: “It is true that the Supreme Court has run amuck [sic], […] true that the right of private property is crucial […] true that some Negro elements have contributed to violence […] true that some Negro demands are patently absurd […] true that Communists exploit the race issue.” (Gollan 1963, 6). Concerns about the constitutionality of legislation went hand in hand with concerns about its efficacy or the assumption that communists might have been behind it. Conservatives’ response to the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement is thus a prototypical case for how fusionism could work in practice as well as in theory, even though it was generally unsuccessful in preventing the advance of landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
What can we learn from this brief historical episode? Today, George Nash thinks that Trump destroyed what was left of the fusionist consensus, that there is now an “ideological civil war on the right” between supporters of the old status quo and Trumpers (Nash 2016). Yet we can see strikingly similar rhetoric to the 1960s among conservatives today when they are reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). For example, Kevin Williamson from National Review wrote in response to the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis: “If there is a cure for the ‘powerlessness which black people feel in an alien white society,’ [a quote by a 1960s Minneapolis civil rights leader, G.W.], it is not to be found in legislation or in more-generous health-insurance subsidies.” Although the author does not explicitly state it, self-improvement still seems to be the Right’s response to activists’ demands. He concludes: “Reducing Minneapolis to a smoking ruin is not going to improve the life of a single black family—but if it makes some college kids feel better…” (Williamson 2020).
Arkansas senator Tom Cotton (R) picks up another Sixties argument: in light of ‘defund the police’ movements, he argues that the demands of civil rights activists will be detrimental to ‘actual’ civil rights: “Policing is indeed one of the greatest civil-rights issues of our time. Weak policing, weak prosecuting, and weak sentencing hurts black Americans more than any other group of our citizens. African Americans tragically constitute approximately half of all murder victims and regularly suffer the brunt of damage resulting from riots. Their lives matter” (Cotton 2021). And former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (R) “takes seriously the fact two of the three top BLM organizers are ‘trained Marxists’” (Jindal 2020).
The more things change, the more they stay the same? Looking back in history enables us to discern that while some parts of conservatism in the age of Trump are genuinely new, others – such as the examples mentioned – draw on long-established traditions. This, in turn, gives us a more nuanced understanding of the American political discourse today.
[i] The title of this essay alludes to a talk held at a YAF training event in 1966 (YAF Student Leadership Conference Schedule 1966)
[ii] Nash would later extend this typology by adding Neoconservatives and the Religious Right (Nash 2009), but this extension received almost no reception by scholars.
About the author
Georg Wolff is a post-doc at University of Heidelberg’s History Department. He has done research on the history of American political thought, including the development of conservatism in the 20th century. Get in contact with him by yelling loudly in front of his office window in the courtyard of Neue Universität. He has previously contributed to the blog, writing about Young Americans for Freedom’s challenge to 1960s East-West trade policy.
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Header / Goldwater Protests: Leffler, Warren K, photographer. Civil rights activists dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members to protest racists supporting the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention, San Francisco, California / WKL. San Francisco California, 1964. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003673964/.
Civil Rights Protests: Leffler, Warren K, photographer. African American demonstrators outside the White House, with signs “We demand the right to vote, everywhere” and signs protesting police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama / WKL. Washington D.C. Alabama Selma Washington, 1965. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014645538/.
YAF Poster: Young Americans for freedom. , . [Sterling, Va.: publisher not identified, 197] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2015646090/.