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Reaction to Lott shows conservative progress on race

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 16, 2002

Trent LottThe New York Times recently reported that Sen. Trent Lott's controversial remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party – and President Bush's public condemnation of them – represented the "Republican Party's 40 Years of Juggling on Race." The article recited a litany of events from Willie Horton to David Duke's 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial bid to the Bob Jones University controversy during the 2000 presidential campaign, implying that the latest controversy was simply more of the same.

Of course, the Democratic Party has its own history on slavery, the Black Codes and Jim Crow. A higher percentage of Republicans in both houses of Congress supported every major piece of civil rights legislation than Democrats during the 1960s. Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, a conservative supporter of Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacies, was instrumental in breaking the Southern filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater voted against it, but so did Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright, Bill Clinton's political mentor, and Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, Sr., the former vice president's father. (The senior Gore later changed his views on civil rights, a stand that contributed to him losing his Senate seat in 1970.) Robert Byrd of West Virginia still serves today; his 1960s opposition to civil rights laws and 1940s membership in the Ku Klux Klan did not prevent Democrats from choosing him as Senate majority and minority leader as recently as the 1980s.

Comparing the two parties' records on these issues nevertheless misses a very important part of the picture. Conservatives actually took the lead in denouncing one of their own for comments that either conveyed nostalgia for racial segregation or were so thoughtlessly framed that such an interpretation would be plausible. Peggy Noonan, Jonah Goldberg, Linda Chavez, Michelle Malkin, Wall Street Journal and New York Post editorialists, Andrew Sullivan, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, Mona Charen, Jeff Jacoby and Kathleen Parker are among the many right-of-center pundits who have condemned Lott. When the Mississippi Republican expressed pride that his home state voted for the Dixiecrats in 1948, the traditional media initially paid almost no attention until a Thomas Edsall story appeared in the Washington Post, but the predominantly conservative "blogosphere" was all over it.

The first place I read about Lott's boneheaded comment was on David Frum's diary at National Review On-Line. Acknowledging that it was probably intended as "a big squirt of greasy flattery," Frum pointedly stated, "What came out of his mouth was the most emphatic repudiation of desegregation to be heard from a national political figure since George Wallace's first presidential campaign. Lott's words suggest that one of the three most powerful and visible Republicans in the nation privately thinks that desegregation, civil rights and equal voting rights were all a big mistake." Within days National Review's editors, speaking for the nation's flagship conservative publication, called upon Lott to step down from his Republican leadership position.

On August 24, 1957 National Review published an unsigned editorial entitled "Why The South Must Prevail" which overtly defended segregation: "…the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race." The editors continued, "National Review believes that the South's premises are correct… It is more important for the community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority." This of course is closer to the States Right's Democratic Party platform than anything Lott uttered at Thurmond's birthday party.

Over the course of the 1950s and ‘60s William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review began to move closer to the civil-rights movement's positions, in no small part because it was clear that such indignities as segregated lunch counters and water fountains can exist for no other purpose than racial subjugation. Consider a personal recollection Sowell recently shared in his syndicated column:

"Although I lived in New York, during the Korean war I was a young Marine who was stationed in the South. On a long bus ride down to North Carolina, the bus stopped very briefly in Winston-Salem so that the passengers could go to the restrooms. And in those days there were separate ‘white' and ‘colored' restrooms. The bus stopped next to the white restrooms and I had no idea where the restrooms for blacks might be located -- or whether I could find it in time to get back to the bus before it left. So I went to the men's room for whites, leaving it to others to decide what they wanted to do about it. I figured that if I were going to die fighting for democracy, I might as well do it in Winston-Salem and save myself a long trip across the Pacific. It so happened that nobody said or did anything. But I should not have had to face such a choice while wearing the uniform of my country and traveling in the South only because I was ordered to."

By 1968, National Review stated that a vote for segregationist candidate George Wallace was the least defensible ballot that could be cast that year. Conservative leaders ranging from Ronald Reagan to Jack Kemp emerged who continued to differ with civil rights leaders' emphasis on activist government yet agreed with their moral claims of racial equality. Stung by criticism that his campaign kickoff in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three young civil rights workers had been killed in 1964, and stated support for states' rights amounted to veiled racism, the 1980 Republican National Convention that nominated Reagan for president was held in Detroit, which had the largest black population of any major city in the nation. His administration was the first to champion school choice and enterprise zones.

George W. Bush has been a particularly eloquent spokesman for inclusive conservatism. "Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals," he said in his rebuke to Lott. "And the founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American." This is not to suggest that racial prejudice was not a part of American history or even the beliefs of many of our founders and the era in which they lived. But the unavoidable logic of these principles, starting with the affirmation of innate natural individual rights in the Declaration of Independence, contradicts those prejudices and mandates equal justice under the law.

Modern conservatism respects the inherent worth and dignity of the individual. It is predicated on limiting government in order to uphold individual rights and to maximize opportunities for individual achievement. These are values that transcend race, which is why so many conservatives have denounced Lott and worked for color-blind policies for at least the past two decades. To be sure, there remain some on the right who resent this progress as an abandonment of what they believe conservatism truly should be. They are a small minority clinging to a past repudiated by experience.

The Lott fiasco will likely embolden liberals to continue portraying the entire conservative movement as a racist reaction against civil rights. But the real story is that the right's reaction has demonstrated the culmination of a more consistent conservatism that celebrates human freedom without regard to race. Regardless of whether Senate Republicans do the right thing and remove Lott, conservatives have spoken and anyone who believes race trumps individual identity does not speak for us.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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