William F. Buckley Jr., the influential conservative thinker who died in February at the age of 82, opposed every milestone achievement of the civil rights movement. He denounced the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education when it was handed down, opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and belittled the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a marginal federal effort to “instruct small merchants in the Deep South on how they may conduct their business.”
Yet Buckley was not himself a bigot, commentators wrote upon his death, but merely either blind or indifferent to bigotry around him. Discrimination simply failed to engage him or many other conservatives in the 1950s and ’60s as a struggle of “great moral urgency,” writes William Voegeli, a visiting scholar at Claremont-McKenna College. The choice between shrinking Big Government and defeating communism on the one hand and ending entrenched and periodically brutal racial discrimination on the other wasn’t a close call: Discrimination was regrettable, but governmental expansion was worse. Buckley hoped that attitudes would change incrementally 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,” Voegeli writes.
Conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. opposed every milestone achievement of the civil rights movement, but he was no bigot.
Buckley and the conservatives for whom he spoke wound up on the wrong side of history, and they allowed the conservative philosophy to be painted as a ruse designed to perpetuate racial inequality. Conservatives opposed to racial discrimination “had few obvious ways to act on that belief without abandoning their long twilight struggle to reconfine the federal government within its historically defined riverbanks after the New Deal had demolished all the levees,” Voegeli writes. But they didn’t look particularly hard for alternatives, either. Buckley eventually recanted, saying that his view that America could evolve its way out of Jim Crow was wrong. His own opinion had changed over time, however, and by 2004 he said flatly, “Federal intervention was necessary.”
Conservatives’ complicity in segregation during the early years of the civil rights movement made it easy for liberals to dismiss all their subsequent arguments against busing, affirmative action, and hiring goals and timetables. By drawing a line in the sand and then eventually conceding that it had been politically and morally indefensible, conservatives lost standing to affect the course of the debate. When faced with what they saw as the constitutionally reckless approach of the civil rights movement to ending segregation, these conservatives shrugged their shoulders and proposed waiting until the segregationists got religion. By letting the best be the enemy of the good, Voegeli argues, 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.”
By drawing the line in an indefensible place, conservatives ceded the high ground to those who insisted there should be no lines whatsoever—those willing to embrace any expansion of government that might further racial justice. “Liberals came to grief over civil rights because they had no stopping point,” Voegeli concludes, “while conservatives came to grief because they had no starting point.”
* * *
THE SOURCE: “Civil Rights and the Conservative Movement” by William Voegeli, in Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2008.
Photo courtesy of The White House Photo Office