On the Right: NET and Modern Conservatism

Conservatism and Civil Rights

The 1963 telecast An American Conservative featured a segment at a bowling alley in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, in which Myrna Bain, member of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative student organization formed in 1960, debated Howard Radest, a member of the Ethical Culture Society. Bain articulated a conservative position on equality, stressing that conservatives believe that all people are equal before the law and that they should be assured of equality in property rights, but that people are not equal otherwise – physically, mentally, or spiritually. The sentiment expressed by Bain is one with which many conservatives of the era would have agreed. What makes the segment remarkable is that Bain was an African American woman, the sole woman of color across the NET episodes to advance conservatism and to affiliate herself with a movement and set of ideas that many perceived as hostile to the interests of racial minorities.

This segment, in which Bain offers a reasoned explanation of the conservatives’ embrace of liberty over equality, was tonally consistent with how programs in this exhibit presented opposition to the civil rights movement. In contrast, coverage of the civil rights movement on commercial television in the late 1950s and 1960s routinely featured what Aniko Bodroghkozy has referred to as “the deviant Other” – the white segregationist who hewed to racist understandings of the “proper” place of African Americans in southern society. This figure was frequently contrasted with the “white moderate” who embraced a colorblind liberalism and advocated for the integration of African Americans into the economic and political life of the community. As Bodroghkozy so well illuminates, newscasts pertaining to the civil rights movement frequently hinged on the contrast between the white “deviant” and the white “moderate,” rendering the African Americans who put their bodies on the line in the fight for racial justice nearly peripheral to the wider drama over their fate in local communities.40

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many conservatives from both political parties opposed the civil rights movement, along with the federal legislation and court decisions that the civil rights movement counted as its most significant victories. Significantly, while many of the conservatives expressed disagreement with the aims and tactics of the civil rights movement, those featured in the NET programs of the 1960s, by and large, were far from the “deviant Others” of network television.

A few episodes aligned conservatism with such figures. Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, who had violently attacked African Americans trying to register to vote, appears at the end of the “Voices of the Right Episode,” from The Radical Americans series and is described in voice-over as a “folk hero of the radical right.” John C. Satterfield, deemed by Time magazine as the “most prominent segregationist lawyer in the country” is one of the three representatives of the “Conservative Viewpoint” on law and order.41 These exceptions aside, the NET programs presented the conservative opposition to civil rights as principled, not motivated by racial hatreds. Across the broadcasts, when the topic of racial injustice arises, conservatives appearing on the programs offered one of three positions to explain their opposition. These positions were consistent how many conservatives understood the threat posed by the civil rights movement, concerns that by the 1960s were untethered from explicit claims of white racial supremacy.

In his 1960 The Conscience of a Conservative, ghost-written by National Review editor (and brother-in-law to William F. Buckley Jr.) L. Brent Bozell, Senator Barry Goldwater outlined one of the more pervasive conservative rationales for opposing the civil rights movement. The primary question, for Goldwater, was whether the Constitution permitted the federal government to intervene in spheres demanded by civil rights activists. His answer hinged on his definition of a “civil right,” which he identified as a right enumerated in a nation’s laws. In addition to voting rights, established in the Fifteenth Amendment, Goldwater located a range of economic and legal rights protected by the Constitution, for example, the right to enter into and enforce contracts, to acquire property, and to be protected by all laws relating to the security of one’s person and property. The use of federal power to promote other rights – such as the prohibition of discrimination in education, employment, or public accommodations – was in Goldwater’s view illegitimate and a dangerous form of federal overreach. While Goldwater personally may have abhorred racial prejudice, he did not think that the federal government should have the power to tell employers who to hire, businesses who to serve, parents whom their children must sit beside in classrooms.42

Many conservatives in the postwar decades would have agreed with Goldwater’s stance on federal overreach. At the start of the Public Broadcast Laboratory episode on Ronald Reagan, Reagan echoed this position, underlining his own intolerance of bigotry, and asserting his unwillingness to patronize businesses that discriminate, but casting suspicion on the power of government to intervene in how individuals control their own possessions. In a “Conservative Viewpoint” episode, economist Milton Friedman and National Review publisher William Rusher suggested that it was the proper view of federal law to prohibit state and local laws promoting discrimination, but that it was improper for it to impose integration; if the former protected individual rights, the latter was an illegitimate form of government social engineering that trampled upon them.

This was but one conservative perspective on the Black Freedom Struggle. Another, perhaps most publicly articulated by Buckley, was rooted in Albert Jay Nock’s notion of the “remnant,” a small group within a society who best understood the nature of governance and society. In an infamous 1957 National Review editorial, Buckley advocated for white southern segregationists, as he understood the white race to be the “advanced race” in the region and African Americans collectively as unfit to assume political power.43 While Buckley would soon recant this position, he would hew to an hierarchical view of society and a belief that the civilized few should rule.44

If, as per Goldwater, social equality was not something that the federal government should properly guarantee, for Buckley the desire for social equality also constituted a misunderstanding of how best to structure a society. While, in Buckley’s view, the “remnant” could cross the color line, and while many white people in Buckley’s view were not sufficiently knowledgeable to participate in political life, he held a fixed understanding of “civilization” rooted in the Western tradition. In addition, Buckley routinely insisted in the inherent rightness of American institutions and values and interpreted any desire to overhaul them as not only counterproductive to the goal of racial justice, but as a threat that must be extinguished with all necessary force. There was no room in Buckley’s worldview for cultural relativism or for skepticism that institutions created by and for one group could meaningfully support diverse communities.45 Buckley’s views on this topic were expressed across all three episodes in which he appears in this exhibit.

A third position on the civil rights movement, most publicly articulated by members of the John Birch Society, was that it was a communist plot. Acknowledging the history of racial discrimination in the U.S., while also identifying that Africans Americans had made progress and attained a higher standard of living than people in the USSR, the JBS insisted that it was communists who had persuaded African Americans that they were in fact downtrodden and who exhorted them to action. To fight the civil rights movement, from this position, was to engage in an important domestic battleground against communism. This view was part-and-parcel of the Society’s contention that the greatest threat to the United States was the infiltration and influence of communists in myriad arenas of American political and social life.46

All three positions rested on seemingly race-neutral principles – a respect for the law as written, a commitment to American institutions as constituted, a belief in the wisdom of elites, and a desire to resist a communist takeover of the country. Yet many white Americans who resisted the Black Freedom Struggle out of racial animus found common cause with conservatives and often adopted their language to oppose the civil rights movement. This dynamic is on view in a 1968 episode of Firing Line, in which Buckley insisted that Alabama Governor George Wallace was not a conservative – Wallace had supported the New Deal and federal programs for Alabamians -- but rather that he used the language of conservatism to advance racial discrimination. In addition, many suburban voters were attracted to conservatism’s commitment to small government and low taxes, as well as its concomitant opposition to school desegregation and affirmative action.

On the topic of African American civil rights, the Republican Party was divided in the postwar decades. The split was both political and ideological. As Timothy N. Thurber has illustrated, at the center of the mid-century Republican Party’s debate over its future were race and region: whether, and to what degree, to support the civil rights movement, and how to fracture the New Deal coalition to bring more voters into the GOP fold. Many moderate Republicans wanted to use the power of the federal government to advance racial equality and believed that for Republicans to regain electoral power they needed to court African American voters. Other members of the party believed that the future of the party would lie in continuing to wrest white southern voters from the Democratic Party and hewed to conservative views on the Black Freedom Struggle. Political leaders like President Richard Nixon tried to square the circle by, on the one hand, supporting affirmative action, promoting African American entrepreneurialism, and increasing funding for African American educational institutions and, on the other, denouncing school busing and selecting southern segregationist judges for the federal bench.47

As Leah Wright Rigeur has demonstrated, African Americans within the Republican Party fought for the GOP to be the party of civil rights. These were individuals who shared a number of conservatives’ views: they were committed anti-communists, advocates of free market enterprise, held faith in Western institutions and traditions, and believed in the importance of personal responsibility. Though African American Republicans in this period were invested in limited government and free enterprise, they also sought an interventionist role of the government in the area of civil rights. They sought to persuade Republicans to court the African American vote and to cultivate a conservatism that embraced – rather than distanced itself from – the fight for African American civil rights.48

When the episodes in this exhibit aired, where the Republican Party would land on the issue of civil rights was uncertain. Yet they clarify the conservative positions, articulated by capable spokespeople like Myrna Bain, who in the 1960s was a contributor to National Review and worked in the Minorities Division of the Republican Party. Yet if, in the language of Ralph Bunche, the Republican Party could not “successfully run with both hare and hound,”49 with white voters hostile to racial justice and African American voters seeking equality, then Wright Rigeur’s history is, despite the best efforts of the figures she profiles, one in which the party decisively swung over to the hound by 1980, abandoning the hare and gaining political advantage by rejecting the use of federal power to address racial inequality. Bain herself would shift political allegiances, as she would become a professor of Black Studies at the City University of New York and would co-found in 1981, along with Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, and Hattie Gosset, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Sources and Suggested Reading

  • Aniko Bodroghkozy, Equal Time: Television and the Civil Right Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012).

  • Matthew Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media and National Resistance to School Desegregation (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).

  • Barry M. Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, first published by Victor Publishing Co., 1960).

  • William Hogeland, “William Buckley’s Legacy in the Politics of Denial and the Denial of Politics,” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 6, no. 4 (2017): 657-64.

  • Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

  • Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

  • Joseph Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

  • Joseph Lowndes, “William F. Buckley Jr.: Anti-blackness as Anti-democracy,” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 6, no. 4 (2017): 632-40.

  • D. J. Mulloy, The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014).

  • Leah Wright Rigeur, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

  • Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Next: Conservatism and the Media

Myrna Bain of Young Americans for Freedom articulates the conservative position on equality in an 1963 telecast, An American Conservative.

Perspectives; The American Conservative

James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. debate the American Dream and its relevance to African Americans; the debate was telecast on NET in 1965.

Debate: Baldwin vs. Buckley

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