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