The Racialized Fabric of Intellectual Movement Conservatism: Part I

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It should be part of our conventional scholarly wisdom that racial conservatism is woven into the fabric of intellectual and “responsible” movement conservatism. But because of misplaced emphasis (academic historians) and disingenuous argumentation (conservative historians), scholars have missed or undersold these high-brow movement conservatives complicated relationship to racial conservatism.

Many historians of the conservative movement have been preoccupied with the “grassroots” and “history from below” to “depathologize” the movement.[1] At the same time, sympathetic conservative chroniclers of the movement downplay the role of racial conservatism in the formation of what would come to be deemed intellectual or responsible conservatism. For example, conservative historian George Nash, whose influential The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976)–a book that set the tone for much of the academic scholarship that followed decades later–argued that, “The conservative leadership [of the movement] strenuously adjured any notions of innate black inferiority. No ranting, vulgar racism besmirched the pages of National Review and Modern Age.”2] And Jeffrey Hart, National Review’s de facto in-house historian, has downplayed William F. Buckley’s infamous 1957 “advanced [white] race editorial,”[3] dismissing it as “Everyone has a bad day.”[4]

Nash’s and Hart’s assessments, in light of the documentary record, make it difficult to devise a generous reading of their arguments. This is the first of two posts (drawn from a work in progress) that aim to correct the record. This post is a miniature “case study” of an important but underappreciated argumentation strand of the reaction to Brown v. Board of Education by the burgeoning coalition of movement and Southern conservatives. The next post will demonstrate the succor these same supposed responsible conservatives at NR gave to scientific racists throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s (in some cases, beyond).

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In a Footnote–the final and eleventh–to Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s law clerk inserted a string cite to social scientists, including African American psychologist Kenneth Clark. A “see generally” to Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma was also included. Whether this was a tactical mistake–one legal scholar has called it “stupid”–we can bracket for now. The point here is how intellectual movement and elite Southern conservatives reacted to it.

Just days after the Brown was handed down, powerful segregationist Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) took to the floor of the Senate to remonstrate that the unanimous opinion “substituted psychology for law.” Some months later, Mississippi’s racist Senator James O. Eastland saw a conspiracy in the Court’s footnote. The people, he declared, “are now entitled to know beyond doubt and peradventure the complete extent and degree of Communist and Communist-front activity and influence in the preparation of the pseudo ‘modern scientific authority’ which was the sole and only basis for the decision of the Supreme Court.”[6]

NR’s masthead was sympathetic to these concerns. In addition to editorializing for interposition and nullification,[7] and praising segregationist Herman Talmadge’s run for a Georgia senate seat—he believed, the magazine told its readers, in “States’ Rights” and “close study” of the Constitution[8]—Buckley editorialized that Brown was “patently counter to the intent of the Constitution, shoddy and illegal in analysis, and invalid as sociology.”[9] (Buckley’s father was a friend and correspondent of South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond—he bought Thurmond a subscription to NR telling Thurmond his son “is for segregation and backs it in every issue.”).[10]

In addition to giving sympathetic coverage to the racist States’ Rights Party ticket in 1956, the conservative magazine editorialized that the “abstractions of radical anthropologists” were partly to blame for the outbreak of violence against blacks in the South, and that liberal legal realists and their “emphasis on law as ‘psychology’” had caused great “damage” to “the American political system.”[11] Indeed, in addition to advocating that the South “form a coalition with the West,” which was necessary to challenge the “Northeastern [political] dictatorship,” James Burnham editorialized for a congressional investigation of the Court “to learn just how books by fellow-travelers were cited among the ‘authorities’ of [sic] Brown v. Board of Education.”[12]

Thurmond and Talmadge were not the only segregationists Buckley and NR drew close. James Jackson Kilpatrick—who Buckley called “my number one” favorite columnist[13] and an important editorialist at the Richmond News Leader—wrote a 1957 polemic defending the South’s cantankerous response to Brown. The decision was invalid because it invoked “sociological views” and “the lamentations of Gunnar Myrdal” rather than relying on the text of the Constitution and the intent of the framers.[14] In 1965, NR ran a cover story by Kilpatrick with the banner: MUST WE REPEAL THE CONSTITUTION TO GIVE THE NEGRO A VOTE?.

Much like Kilpatrick, William D. Workman—a South Carolina journalist, confidant of Strom Thurmond, and early adopter of the Republican brand in South Carolina politics—was disturbed by Brown’s reliance on social science. In The Case for the South (1960), Workman positioned himself between Court, “which has wrought havoc in its injudicious effort to play at sociology” and “the Ku Klux Klan . . . who substitute muscle and meanness for the intellect which by rights must be in defense of the South” (vii). Agreeing with Kilpatrick that the 14th Amendment was properly rejected by the Southern states (14-16), Workman repeatedly criticized the “sociological” nature of Warren’s opinion—the Court had ignored “all legal precedent” in Brown thus the decision was nakedly political (195, 197).

Workman’s book was heavily advertised and reviewed positively in NR. As the reviewer for NR wrote, rather than the South “submit[ing] quietly to the New Sociology” Workman’s book demonstrated “that the Negro has not earned the right to be treated as an equal,” as Workman “marshals impassive statistics on Negro illegitimacy, crime and insolvency.”[15] Left unsaid by the reviewer was Workman’s argument that “[p]erhaps more than other single factor” the “white Southerner’s concern over race relations is in substantial measure a concern over sex relations . . . .” (211).

Rosalie Gordon’s Nine Men Against America: The Supreme Court and Its Attack on American Liberties—first published in 1957, it went through an impressive run of four editions, the last one being updated in 1965—shared these concerns about Brown and the problematic origins of the 14th Amendment. Written in a more colloquial and accessible style than Kilpatrick—she cited him approvingly and at length regarding the original meaning of the 14th Amendment and interposition (61, 117)—Gordon contended that the “pseudo-science” and “psycho-sociological ‘science’” relied on in Brown was the work of intellectuals with communist sympathies (57-68). Indeed, Gordon told her readers “that ‘equal protection of the laws’ is fulfilled in the provision of separate but equal facilities” (69). As with Workman’s book, NR did its part to promote it.[16]

A few years after Workman’s book, L. Brent Bozell, Buckley’s long-time friend and brother-in-law, wrote an important 1966 book on the Warren Court (The Warren Revolution). The Brown decision, he wrote, relied on “psychological and sociological treatises” which were mere “opinion rather than fact” whle ignoring “the views of the Constitution’s framers” (54, 55, emphasis in original). Mocking the Court’s reasoning in Brown—the Fourteenth Amendment’s framers “after all, had not read Freud” (56)—Bozell reasoned that, “in 1954, thanks to the sociologists and the psychologists” the Court had taken upon itself write a “concept” of equality “into the Constitution” (56, emphasis in original). Fond of italics, Bozell summed up his argument thusly: “The States that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, equally with the Congress that proposed it, had no intention of outlawing separate schools” (48).

Brown‘s Footnote 11 was thus a cudgel for the intellectual conservatives to bind the shared policy and constitutional concerns of Southern conservatives to their cause. In the process, NR and the intellectuals in its orbit constructed an argument that attacked social science expertise in the name of a culturally populist “common sense” style of argumentation. At the same time, NR routinely promoted authors who championed racial differences and separate but equal. Indeed, Buckley’s father was pleased to tell a Southern conservative senator Buckley was in favor of segregation. In short, Nash’s contention that the “conservative leadership strenuously adjured” black inferiority is difficult to take seriously in light of the evidence (and this is only some of the instances that are in plain sight in NR). What is more, contrary to Jeffrey Hart, the empirical evidence demonstrates that the intellectual conservatives who wrote for NR had many “bad day[s]” and, indeed, were committed to racial conservatism.

Part II will set forth an even more uncomfortable fact regarding the early days of intellectual conservatism: its commitment to scientific racism and explicit arguments in favor of innate black biological inferiority.


[1]           Calvin TerBeek, “Gaining Empirical and Theoretical Traction on the American Postwar Conservative Movement,” Clio, December 2018.

[2]           Nash at 285 (2008 ISI Books edition). Nash helped popularize the “fusionism” thesis that National Review putatively performed in bringing together traditional and economic conservatives with an anti-communism glue.

[3]           In 1957, Buckley wrote that “the White community is so entitled [to rule in the South] because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” He added: “It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidence the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.”  

[4]           Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National and Its Times (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1996), 108.

[5]           For a good reexamination of the construction of the Southern Manifesto and how some legal scholars have misapprehended this story, see Ruth Bloch Rubin and Greg Elinson, “Anatomy of Judicial Backlash: Southern Leaders, Massive Resistance, and the Supreme Court, 1954-1958,” Law & Social Inquiry, 43(Summer 2018): 944-980.

[6]           Richard Russell, Congressional Record, May 26, 1954; James O. Eastland, Congressional Record, May 26, 1955

[7]           Henry Hazlitt, “Court or Constitution?,” National Review, September 1, 1956, 14-15, “The Right to Nullify, see binder, “The South Girds Its Loins,” NR, February 29, 1956, 5-6.

[8]           “The Week,” National Review, October 27, 1956, 4.

[9]           “Segregation and Democracy,” NR, January 25, 1956, 5.

[10]         Joseph Crespino, Strom Thurmond’s America: A History (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2012).

[11]         “The Week,” National Review, January 12, 1957, 27-28; “The Week,” National Review, January 26, 1957, 78.

[12]         James Burnham, “Notes the Gulf Coast,” National Review, June 6, 1956, 8-9; James Burnham, “Why Not Investigate the Court?,” National Review, July 20, 1957, 83-4.

[13]         William P. Hustwit, James Jackson Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[14]         James Jackson Kilpatrick, The Sovereign States: Notes of Citizen of Virginia (Chicago: Regnery Press, 1957), 255, 273.

[15]         Richard Whalen, “As the South Sees It,” National Review, February 13, 1960, 109-10.

[16]         “For the Record,” National Review, January 5, 1957, 2

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