Excerpt from Nicholas Buccola’s *The Fire is Upon Us* (2019)

Buccola, Nicholas. “Joining the Battle” The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. Princeton University Press, 2019, pp. 83–93.


Nicholas Buccola (beginning on pg. 83):

In the early years of National Review, Buckley and his colleagues developed a case against the civil rights movement that consisted of four major categories of argument: constitutionalist, authoritarian, traditionalist, and radical elitist. Each of these categories was undergirded by an assumption of cultural (if not congenital) white supremacy. According to the constitutionalist argument, the civil rights movement was to be resisted because it threatened the American constitutional system. The authoritarian response to black liberation struggle emphasized the threat it posed to the social order. According to traditionalist reasoning, the civil rights movement was to be resisted because it interfered with “the Southern way of life.” And finally, there was a great deal of racial elitism and paternalism, which was occasionally buttressed with crude racial pseudoscience, to be found in the pages of National Review. Racial elitists maintained that the civil rights movement was to be resisted because “advanced,” or “civilized,” white people have the right and duty to “civilize” the less “advanced,” or “civilized,” black people. In order to understand how Buckley thought about race, each of these categories must be considered in turn.

In the early days of National Review, Buckley and his writers often attacked the civil rights movement with a constitutionalist argument that emphasized the threat it posed to the ordered liberty promised by the American system of government. The basic assertion went something like this: the major aim of the American constitutional system is to safeguard personal freedom, and in order to achieve that goal, governmental power is carefully divided horizontally (between the branches of the federal government) and vertically (between federal, state, and local governments). In order to protect personal freedom in the long run, short-term political desires may have to be thwarted if their achievement would require disruption of this constitutional structure. As Buckley put it in one of the early issues of National Review, “Political decentralization” is a a”mechanical safeguard to freedom,” and it is not wise to tinker with constitutional machinery.

National Review‘s application of this argument to the civil rights movement varied depending on the most urgent controversy. Soon after the magazine was launched, Buckley and his fellow editors declared “the Supreme Court’s decision in the key segregation cases (Brown and Bolling) to be one of the most brazen acts of judicial usurpation in our history” because the Court had assumed a power (the determination of educational policy) that it did not rightfully possess. The editors of National Review were careful to point out that the usurpation in question was not merely horizontal in nature (i.e. , that this was an inappropriate action because it was taken by the judiciary), but more important, that it was a violation of the vertical division of power within the federal system. “We are [also],” they explained, “opposed to congressional intervention in the school segregation issue.”

Buckley’s constitutionalist critique of Brown anticipated many ideas that were defended in the March 1956 congressional resolution known as the “Southern Manifesto,” a document signed by nineteen senators (including every southern senator save for three) and seventy-seven members of the House of Representatives. The manifesto condemned the “unwarranted decision of the Supreme Court in the public school cases” as a “clear abuse of judicial power” that was “destroying the amicable relations that have been created through ninety years of patient efforts by good people of both races.” 

National Review gave the manifesto a stamp of approval a month later when it published a piece by Forrest Davis called “The Right to Nullify.” Davis—a former Washington Editor for the Saturday Evening Post and former adviser to Senator Robert Taft—called Brown an “edict” and “legislative fiat” that upset “centuries-old traditions” of educating children separately as well as protecting school auditoriums as safe spaces for the expression of white civic pride. Davis conceded that the “impulses” and “desires of Negroes” that moved the Court to act should not be minimized, but something larger was at stake: “the merits and bounds of federal power of the local concerns of citizens.” He dismissed as utopian nonsense the idea that there was a constitutional imperative to secure equality before the law, and concluded by asserting that white southerners had every right to feel “aggrieved” and “frustrated,” and that the “statesmen” who authored the Southern Manifesto and populated the Citizens’ Councils that had mobilized on the grassroots level were right to declare that they have a “substantial warrant for seeking to nullify the [Brown] decision short of rebellion.” 

Buckley’s approval of the Southern Manifesto is especially revealing of the fine line he was attempting to walk on race. The leaders of the southern resistance in Congress received considerable praise in National Review, mostly through the column of Washington correspondent Sam M. Jones, a veteran reporter from Virginia who was a former aide to Senator McCarthy, and considered to be a “faithful and understanding friend” by George Lincoln Rockwell, who would go on to become the “commander” of the American Nazi Party. As National Review’s Man on the Hill, Jones used his column—which was featured on the inside cover of the magazine from its founding until 1958—as a space to promote the ideas of arch segregationists in Congress. In early 1956, he wrote a glowing piece about Senator Thurmond of South Carolina, a Buckley family friend who received a gift subscription to National Review from Buckley Sr. In 1956, Will Buckley wrote to Thurmond to tell him that he would love the magazine because, among other things, “[Bill] is for segregation and backs it in every issue.” In his puff piece on Thurmond, Jones dubbed the senator “a latter day Patrick Henry” ready to lead another “Dixiecrat rebellion” against “the leadership of the Democratic Party” if it failed to resist “the edict that races must mix, in schools or elsewhere.” In case there was any doubt about what Jones had in mind when he wrote of “mixing,” he made himself entirely clear in a later column that featured an interview with Senator Russell of Georgia. The interview took place while Thurmond was on the Senate floor attempting to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (which will be discussed below). “Do the people of the South” Jones asked, “fear political domination by the Negro or miscegenation or both?” In response, Russell said white southerners feared both, but that “we feel even more strongly about miscegenation or racial amalgamation.” To help his readers connect the dots, Jones’s next question was, “Do you believe that school integration would be a step toward mass miscegenation in the South?” Russell responded, of course, in the affirmative.

Buckley’s own writing about these southern “statesmen” differed in spirit and substance from the fawning adulation offered by Jones. Buckley was uncomfortable with the inclusion of racially incendiary rhetoric about miscegenation in National Review. Indeed, in an interoffice memo to the other editors of the magazine, Buckley lamented the fact that Jones seemed to incorporate commentary on miscegenation into so many of his columns. Buckley seemed willing, though, to set these qualms aside because he viewed southern segregationists as potentially useful allies in the advancement of the conservative agenda. Perhaps earlier than most, he saw great potential in a “southern strategy” to advance the conservative cause. The southerners, Buckley reasoned, might be shoved into the conservative camp by the overreach of the Supreme Court. In a 1956 editorial called “Return to States’ Rights,” Buckley revealed his hopes for bringing southerners into the conservative coalition. The South, he wrote, had a long tradition of defending states’ rights from the “brilliant” pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun to the present. The trouble with contemporary “states-righters,” Buckley contended, was they were inconsistent opportunists. They were solid states’ righters on the question of race, but “when federal government proposes to lavish its economic charms on a particular state, resistance vanishes.” Buckley expressed hope that the Court’s action in Brown “may have the effect of shaking inchoate states-righters out of their opportunistic stupor.” He was prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their defense of states’ rights on racial matters, but he wanted them to embrace the states’ rights position in other areas as well. Now that federal intervention had “struck hard at traditions deeply rooted and very deeply cherished” in the South, Buckley hoped southerners might be pushed to embrace a “reasoned, principled and consistent” view of “the broad and—potentially—dynamic concept of decentralized political authority.”

Given the strategic value of southerners in Congress—something a young Arizona Senator named Barry Goldwater had noted in his diary as early as 1952—Buckley’s courtship is not too surprising. But in “The Right to Nullify,” Davis also singled out for praise the members of the Citizens’ Councils throughout the South. Wasn’t that a step too far for Buckley, who claimed to be trying to promote a “nonracist” conservative position on civil rights? After all, the Citizens’ Council movement—which had grown from a dozen members in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the immediate aftermath of Brown to a large and powerful organization with chapters throughout the South—was widely understood to be the “uptown” or “Rotary Club” version of the Ku Klux Klan. The councilmen, as they liked to be called, talked “a great deal about the difference between their organization and the Ku Klux Klan,” reporter Dan Wakefield noted in the mid-1950s, but “the difference is slight.” The tall, mustachioed council leader William. J. Simmons—who had once studied French literature at the Sorbonne—explained their raison d’être in this way: “The South has a large nigger population,” and “anyone with two eyes in his head and roughly normal vision can look around him and see that there is a vast and permanent difference between the white and colored people.” This difference, Simmons argued, will “forever prohibit them from living on terms of equality in the same society.”

The councilmen took it to be their task to prevent the federal government from forcing southerners to accept “terms of equality” not of their choosing. The council, Simmons explained later, was there to stop “Big Government” from forcing the South down the road to “mongrelization.” According to Simmons, segregation was fully consistent with “terms of equality” they could accept: “Why should the nigger feel any more discriminated against than the white man for associating with his own kind? White people who are segregated don’t seem to resent it,” he said with a chuckle to an interviewer. At a council rally in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1956, Mississippi senator James Eastland addressed a crowd of twelve thousand councilmen, many of whom were gripping a handbill in their sweaty palms that read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all whites are created with certain rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of dead niggers.”

Councilmen were also quick to point out that the tactics they used—newsletters, television and radio programs, and economic pressure—were quite different from the means favored by the Klan. But again, Wakefield found these differences to be largely superficial:

The klansmen hid their faces with sheets and paraded their deeds in the open. The Councilmen hid many of their deeds, or at least many of the deeds their words would inspire, behind memos and mimeographs and parade their faces in the open. But whether the means be a memo or a fiery cross, the end is the same—a climate of distrust and fear that breeds unsolved murders and threats of more.

The last time Wakefield had been in Mississippi, it was to cover the Till trial. He had seen firsthand what the climate of distrust and fear had wrought.

In summer 1958, James Jackson Kilpatrick, a National Review contributor and Virginia newspaper editor who has rightly been dubbed one of American history’s leading “salesmen for segregation,” put Buckley in touch with Simmons, who was the editor and publisher of the Citizens’ Council newsletter, the Citizen. Kilpatrick, who by then had close working relationships with both men, thought the match could be beneficial for both the council and National Review. If a relatively mainstream conservative organ like National Review provided any positive press for the council, it might help the organization muster greater credibility on the national scene. For National Review, which was struggling financially, a connection with the council held out the promise of more subscribers and donors, among other things. On July 10, 1958, Kilpatrick wrote to Buckley with some exciting news:

Bill Simmons, the major domo of the entire Citizens Council movement in the South, happened to pass through Richmond a week or so ago, and came by the house for dinner. In the course of our conversation I brought up National Review‘s troubles, and asked if he could promote NR in his editorial columns. He said he would be glad to, and volunteered to work out some arrangement with you for use of their 65,000 name mailing list if it would be of help to you.

A few weeks later, after a phone conversation with Buckley, Simmons agreed to send the mailing list to National Review. In addition, Simmons sent Buckley a letter in which he praised National Review for “making a highly significant and material contribution to the cause of political and social sanity.” Along with the letter, Simmons provided Buckley with copies of recent editions of the Citizen so he would be able to see firsthand what the organization was all about. These editions—like all other editions of the periodical—were devoted almost exclusively to advancing the segregationist cause through editorials, letters, and racist cartoons. In his response to Simmons, Buckley said he was grateful for the support and the mailing list, and looked forward to reaching out to the supporters of the Citizens’ Council “only because I feel that our position on states’ rights is the same as your own and that we are therefore, as far as political decentralization is concerned, pursuing the same ends.”

There are a couple of ways to interpret Buckley’s cozying up to the Citizens’ Council. One explanation is that whatever qualms he had about the council’s racism were trumped by his desire to use its mailing list to increase the circulation of his magazine. This explanation cannot be dismissed altogether since the magazine was struggling to stay afloat, but there is more to the story than that. Perhaps more important, Buckley had developed a deep respect for Kilpatrick so when the Virginian offered his endorsement of the council, he was likely persuaded that the alliance would be worthwhile. Buckley and Kilpatrick met in 1956 when Henry Regnery—the publisher of Buckley’s first two books—sent Buckley a copy of Kilpatrick’s states’ rights manifesto, The Sovereign States, which Regnery published as well. Regnery introduced Kilpatrick to Buckley as “one of the new leaders in southern conservatism and states’ rights.” Indeed, Kilpatrick—or “Kilpo” as he was known to friends and associates—had used his perch as the editor of the Richmond News Leader to become, in the words of historian George Nash, “the principal journalistic and constitutional theorist of [the ‘massive resistance'” campaign that had emerged in Virginia in response to Brown. It did not take long for Buckley and Kilpatrick to realize that they were ideological soul mates who could trust and rely on one another in their professional lives. When, in 1957, Kilpatrick was looking to hire a new associate editor to work for him at the Richmond News Leader, he reached out to Buckley for a recommendation: “What I need is a writer with conservative views,” he wrote to his friend, “who is ‘right’ on the school question in the South, and on matters of constitutional government.” Buckley later called Kilpatrick “the primary editorialist on our side of the fence. . . . In fact, I sometimes jocularly refer to him as ‘Number One.'” Kilpatrick was, in sum, the embodiment of what Buckley took to be a responsible conservative position on civil rights; he was deeply committed to the segregationist cause, but instead of defending it with demagogic rhetoric, he offered relatively sophisticated jurisprudential arguments.

It was for this reason that Buckley relied on Kilpatrick to offer National Review‘s showcase response to the 1957 Little Rock school integration crisis, which became a symbol of the white southern resistance to the implementation of Brown. In the face of a federal court order demanding the integration of Central High School, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called in the National Guard to prevent black students from attending. The nine students, once turned away, were met with angry white mobs in the streets surrounding Central High School. Some in the mob became violent and assaulted a black journalist who was there to cover the story. In response to this conflagration of racial tension, President Eisenhower attempted to persuade Faubus to relent, and when he proved to be intransigent, the president ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to escort the black students into the school.

“The nine Negro pupils,” Kilpatrick declared in his National Review essay on the crisis, “are not really very important in all this.” What really mattered, he insisted, were the “two great [jurisprudential] conflicts” at the heart of the controversy: “a conflict of powers” and “a conflict of rights.” The conflict of powers issue, Kilpatrick claimed, was a clear-cut one: in the face of angry mobs unwilling to accept the integration of the “Little Rock Nine,” the government’s primary obligation was to “keep the peace,” and the “police power” belonged primarily to the states, not the federal government.

Kilpatrick’s discussion of the “question of rights” in the Little Rock case takes us to the second category of argument emphasized by National Review on civil rights: authoritarianism. In this context, authoritarianism means a decided preference for the exercise of authority in pursuit of some political goal (e.g., social order) over competing claims of individual rights. Although National Review‘s constitutionalist arguments offered in opposition to the civil rights movement were usually framed in broadly libertarian terms, the magazine’s libertarianism had its limits. More specifically, when the freedom of the individual (especially when that individual was a person of color) was thought to be a threat to their preferred social order, Buckley and most of his writers in this period took a decidedly authoritarian turn. Kilpatrick’s language in the Little Rock piece made this entirely clear. On one side of the conflict, “the people have a community right to peace and tranquility, the right to freedom from tumult and lawlessness.” Just so there was no doubt about how this right applied to the case at hand, Kilpatrick added, “The white parents of the South have some rights relating to the quiet education of their children under surroundings which they desire.” On the other side of the conflict, “the Supreme Court has created certain ‘rights’ for Negro students . . . [including] the right to attend non-segregated public school.” Kilpatrick insisted that this was at best a pseudo right because the Court did a “lawless thing” by creating a right nowhere to be found in the Constitution. “Race-mixing of certain schools,” Kilpatrick concluded ominously, “now leads to knifings, dynamitings [sic], and other forms of violence. . . . By far the worst is yet to come.”

There is a clear tension between the apparently libertarian framing of the constitutionalist argument—political decentralization is a safeguard of individual liberty—and the antilibertarian implications of an authoritarian position. In order to address this, Buckley complemented the common authoritarian rejoinder—there can be no liberty without social order—with two other categories of argument: traditionalism and racial elitism. These categories are crucial to making sense of Buckley’s early views on race.