U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A History of Color-blindness and Memory of Civil Rights

The following is a guest post from Robert Greene II, a PhD student in History at the University of South Carolina. This is Greene’s second guest post for the USIH Blog. His first: “Why I Chose Intellectual History”

As historians, we often find ourselves digesting not just the past, but how it relates to the present. To that end, a research question I find myself coming back to is, “How did conservatives and liberals come to the positions they’ve taken on race?” Initially such a question appears easy to answer. Scratching beneath the surface, however, forces Americanists to take a closer look at not just the transition in thought on race amongst intellectuals and academics after the Second World War (chronicled most notably in Richard King’s Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals[1] but the adjustment of liberals and conservatives to a new racial outlook in American society after the Civil Rights Movement, when blatant racism was no longer politically palatable. This would include, of course, Democrats (and new Republicans) in the South, figures such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Being some of the most notable opponents of integration in the 1960s, they would have to adjust to a new reality to continue to win office in the 1970s and beyond.MLK_Memorial_NPS_photo

The transition made in the 1970s for many Southern conservatives from opposition to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, to supporting the renewal of the VRA and backing the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday only makes sense once you consider the power of public memory. A memory of accepting African Americans fully into the body politic was necessary, but at the same time, conservatives would not countenance such liberal remedies for institutional racism as affirmative action. A vigorous, renewed debate over ideas of race and identity has taken place in the United States since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, this new debate would include the idea of color-blindness, something conservatives would immediately latch on to.

Perhaps no one from the South made more out of the idea of color-blindness than the columnist and editor James J. Kilpatrick. His role, and the role of newspapers in the shaping of the white South’s attitude towards race during the Civil Rights Movement, is one still being explored by historians. But it’s clear, especially based on the work of Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in The Race Beat and more recently by William Hustwit in his biographical work, James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman of Segregation,  that Kilpatrick was the central figure among Southern journalists in creating a response to the civil rights upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s. [2] kilpatrickHustwit’s most important contribution, however, is showing how Kilpatrick successfully made a transition from a segregationist to a respected conservative figure, with a nationally syndicated column and as part of the “60 Minutes” segment “Point/Counterpoint”. The idea of color-blindness, of favoring equal treatment of all Americans regardless of color but nothing beyond that, became a staple of Kilpatrick’s conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s.

Meanwhile, the memory of the Civil Rights Movement became a new ideological battleground during this same time period. The symbolism of race, seen most notably in debates over affirmative action and welfare rights, gave conservatives the chance to wipe away some of their own rhetorical excesses during the Civil Rights Movement era. These arguments, culminating in Kilpatrick and others’ use of “color-blindness”, gave the Right a chance to use the language of liberals against them, neutralizing the race issue during the Reagan years. Instead of allowing the Left the rhetorical high ground, the idea of equal opportunity became a contested battleground.

As we approach the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, it becomes even more important to think about these debates. Conservatives have honed the ability to appropriate some of the language of Dr. King, while some progressives and many academics cringe at modern conservative uses of the “I Have A Dream” speech, for example. And while many progressives grew frustrated with Glenn Beck’s use of Dr. King, just as an example, it’s important to understand how we came to the point where civil rights leaders, like any other historical figures, became tools in modern political debates. As more historians grapple with the idea of the “Age of Reagan” and its impact on debates between liberals and conservatives, as well as on race in modern America, understanding the intersection of memory and color-blindness will become more important. For example, partisan magazines, radio and television shows, and columns by pundits on both sides of these debates will provide ample fodder for understanding the conservative construction of color-blindness in the 80s and beyond. Intellectual history has already begun to tackle this issue, but it has taken on a greater urgency in the so-called “Age of Obama”.

Most importantly, the question becomes: how do we communicate this to a broader audience? On that, I’m not sure, but that is just as important a goal as the growing scholarship on Civil Rights, Black Power, and American memory.

[1]   King, Richard H. Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970. (Washington, D.C., John Hopkins University Press: 2004)

[2]   Klibanoff, Hank and Roberts, Gene. The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 2007), Hustwit, William P. James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press:2013)

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Robert. Jonathan Schoenwald’s A Time For Choosing is great on the New Right’s rejection of the Bircher base in 1964 and, led by Buckley and Reagan, turn toward “color-blind” racial moderation. Dochuk has a chapter on evangelical moderation toward race in Bible Belt to Sunbelt.

  2. I’ll definitely have to check those out. As it is, I’m finding in my own research more connections between the construction of memory and color-blindness on the Right. I suspect, however, that some interesting ideas can be found in debates among conservative, moderate, and liberal Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s over how best to navigate the minefield of racial discourse once the optimism of the mid-1960s gives way to concerns over affirmative action and “reverse racism”.

    And thanks for the kind words. I enjoy this space because it gives us all a chance to “think out loud” on various topics.

  3. While reading your essay, I am reminded of Corey Robin’s thesis about conservatism. The era of white supremacy was coming to a legal end, and James J. Kilpatrick adopts the democratic idiom of “color-blindness” to justify the racial hierarchy because after all it is the Southerner who is being victimized by the big, bad federal government. This sentiment is later tactically capitalized by the GOP’s southern strategy as illustrated by Lee Atwater’s interview with Alexander P. Lamis in 1980.

    This dovetails nicely with Phyllis Schafly’s usage of “female empowerment” to justify the patriarchy of the pre-feminist movement days, or even last night’s Daily Show piece with the poor, persecuted radio pastor complaining of homosexuals bullying straight Christians.

    I look forward to reading more of your investigations comparing the rhetoric of color-blindness with the reality of conservative ideology in regards to such areas as crime and punishment, educational opportunity, etc.

  4. And indeed, that’s where I’m headed right now. Currently I’m investigating the ways in which race and colorblindness are talked about in conservative and liberal publications in the 1970s and 1980s. Over time I’ll expand to include key political campaigns in those years and also education and popular culture.

  5. This sentiment is later tactically capitalized by the GOP’s southern strategy as illustrated by Lee Atwater’s interview with Alexander P. Lamis in 1980.

    Perhaps one should build such a serious charge on more than a single line of a single interview with a single peripheral figure. NYTmag:

    The Myth of ‘the Southern Strategy’

    Published: December 10, 2006
    Everyone knows that race has long played a decisive role in Southern electoral politics. From the end of Reconstruction until the beginning of the civil rights era, the story goes, the national Democratic Party made room for segregationist members — and as a result dominated the South. But in the 50s and 60s, Democrats embraced the civil rights movement, costing them the white Southern vote. Meanwhile, the Republican Party successfully wooed disaffected white racists with a “Southern strategy” that championed “states’ rights.”

    It’s an easy story to believe, but this year two political scientists called it into question. In their book “The End of Southern Exceptionalism,” Richard Johnston of the University of Pennsylvania and Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin argue that the shift in the South from Democratic to Republican was overwhelmingly a question not of race but of economic growth.

    see also


    [I]n the course of this argument, Bouie makes the following statement: “White Southerners jumped ship from Democratic presidential candidates in the 1960s, and this was followed by a similar shift on the congressional level, and eventually, the state legislative level. That the [last] two took time doesn’t discount the first.”

    If you polled pundits, you’d probably get 90 percent agreement with this statement. And if you polled political scientists, you’d likely get a majority to sign off on it. That’s maddening, because it’s incorrect.

    In 1956, Eisenhower became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a plurality of the vote in the South, 49.8 percent to 48.9 percent. He once again carried the peripheral South, but also took Louisiana with 53 percent of the vote. He won nearly 40 percent of the vote in Alabama. This is all the more jarring when you realize that the Brown v. Board decision was handed down in the interim, that the administration had appointed the chief justice who wrote the decision, and that the administration had opposed the school board…

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