The Spectacle Blog

Civil Rights and the New South, Cont’d

By on 12.28.10 | 10:57AM

Searching on Nexis, I found that John O'Sullivan column I mentioned in a post yesterday. I'll reproduce some of it because I think O'Sullivan's observations on Trent Lott are relevant to the controversy engulfing fellow Mississippian Haley Barbour:

In order to soothe the South into accepting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, such politicians had to treat their constituents not as bigots but as essentially good people open to change. They had to make occasional gestures of solidarity with the southern tradition by, for instance, praising Jefferson Davis or defending the Confederate flag. And they had to make speeches to bodies like the Citizens' Councils.

But what did those speeches say? Nine times out of 10, especially behind closed doors, they went like this: "Look, boys, I know you all are decent folks. But we gotta admit we treated the Negroes badly, and there have to be changes. Some of those changes I don't like any more than you. Others--let's admit it--are long overdue. And all of them will help us attract new industries and make everybody better off. To make this work, though, we need responsible leadership. And that sure as hell doesn't mean the northern Democrats."

This kind of politics is messy, uninspiring and not particularly noble. It explains why a master of them, like Lott, strikes Charles Krauthammer, Andrew Sullivan, the National Review, and the high-minded philosophers in the Blogosphere as shifty, insincere and opportunist. But that is how democratic politics works when the voters are attached to institutions and traditions that have to be reformed half out of existence.

And they really did work. Yesterday's South has been transformed into--well, a region much like the rest of America. Selma has an enterprising black mayor, and public schools and colleges are integrated.

At the time, I stood with the "high-minded philosophers of the Blogosphere" and advocated Trent Lott's removal from the Senate Republican leadership. Then and now, I thought that a major party leader in the U.S. Senate ought to be able to come up with a more convincing disavowal of racial segregation than Lott was able to muster. But there is something to O'Sullivan's account: while the civil-rights movement was the heroic catalyst of racial progress in America, there were others who played a more conflicted yet still important role in making that progress possible.

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