Desegregation with a Wink

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Small is the author of The Presidency of Richard Nixon, which will appear this spring in paperback.

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Reacting to the furious assault on the Republican Party's alleged racism inspired by Trent Lott's foot-in-mouth disease, George Shultz, Richard Nixon's first secretary of labor, contended in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that his party has gotten a bum rap. He pointed with pride to his leadership of the Cabinet Committee on Education that helped to end, once and for all, de jure segregation in Southern schools. And he correctly highlighted Nixon's support of his activities.

In 1969, 68 percent of black children in the South attended all-black schools. By the time Nixon left office, that number had fallen to 8 percent. And it is true, that the approach his administration adopted to enforce the 1954 Brown decision, involving schmoozing with white and black leaders in state desegregation committees, did the trick with relatively little resistance from hardliners. Indeed, although the Nixon administration moved with more than "all deliberate speed" to facilitate the ending of de jure segregation in the South, his party not only held onto its gains in that region but just about completed the trend that had begun in the Eisenhower years to make the once solid Democratic South the most important Republican stronghold in the nation. According to Nixon's Southern strategist, Harry Dent, to desegregate the South and still hold on to the loyalties of Southerners was the "miracle of this age."

In 1969, the issue had reached a major crisis point with HEW, under the approach adopted by the Johnson administration, poised to deny funds to laggard southern school districts that were resisting court-ordered desegregation. Nixon, who did believe that it was time to get the issue behind him and the nation, cleverly decided to alter that approach by moving the matter of the districts that were in non-compliance from HEW to the federal judiciary.

When, in August 1969, he announced a delay in the implementation of HEW's previously announced "punishment" for thirty-three school districts in Mississippi, sixty-five of the seventy-four line officers in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department publicly protested the new approach. But now the wrath of the Southerners would be directed against the federal judiciary, not Nixon's HEW, headed by his friend, the moderate Robert Finch.

As Shultz pointed out, Nixon did meet periodically with Southern leaders to urge them to accept desegregation plans, but one reason why the former labor secretary's account may have come as something of a surprise is that the spotlight-loving president played those activities in a low key. He ordered that "our people have got to quit bragging about school desegregation. We do what the law requires-nothing more." He agreed with an advisor in 1971 who wrote that "if we can keep liberal writers convinced that we are doing what the Court requires, and our conservative Southern friends convinced that we are not doing any more than the Court requires, I think we can walk this tightrope until November 1972."

Furthermore, many Southerners took heart when Nixon tried to appoint two of their number to the Supreme Court, who, according to him, were "distinguished jurists" who "had the misfortune of being born in the South." They were pleased as well when the administration tried to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act when it came up for renewal in 1969. And they were elated when he threatened to support a constitutional amendment against cross-district busing, even though he commented privately that "I know it's not a good idea, but it'll make those bastards [in the Democratic Party] take a stand and it's a political plus for us."

If one accepts the notion that presidents can take the credit for all the progressive legislation and social and economic progress that occur during their administrations even if they were not enthusiastic about them, then Shultz has a point; the Republican Party, which ran the country when de jure segregation finally ended in the South, deserves its props. After all, Clinton Democrats proudly celebrated "their" Welfare Reform legislation.

Nonetheless, Nixon helped to desegregate the South with a wink, in effect telling his emerging new base that he sympathized with them but there was little else he could do given those expletive deleted liberal judges. He would, of course, support their concerns in other ways, as he certainly did on the way to creating the new Republican majority that won five of the next eight presidential elections, including his second run in 1972.

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Brett Kottmann - 7/7/2003

Since 1960:

Democrat "southern white males" who ran for President as a party nominee:

Lyndon Johnson
Jimmy Carter
Bill Clinton
Al Gore

Democrats who ran as a third party candidate:

George Wallace.

Repblican "southern white males" who ran for President as a party nominee:

George W. Bush (and that is in debate as liberal southerners called him a carpetbagger!)

Liberals simply assert that Republicans are racists and offer little proof. One of their standard assumptions is that southern white males are racists.

How incredibly biased, racist and ignorant!

Just check the results from Presidential elections. The south isn't any more "solid" for Republicans than any other part of the country, and it has been the Democrats running "southern white males", not Republicans.

Hope this helps!

jade - 2/7/2003

everyone in American politics seems to just want to make there own face look better and to make what they are doing look better.
Well, why not actually make things better and step up and disarm, set an example for the rest of the world?

Richard Dyke - 1/23/2003

I did not read in Small's article that Nixon alone created the new Republican majority, as Mr. Chamberlain appears to claim. In fact, Small clearly points out that the South's (indeed, the country's) turn toward the Republican party began with Eisenhower. Like Nixon, Eisenhower was a reluctant civil rights participant. In Eisenhower's case, he reluctantly intervened in Little Rock's Central High School desegregation.

It seems to me that it might be profitably argued that both Nixon and Eisenhower (and Reagan and the two Bushes) have won the hearts of the South less because of reluctant support for desegregation and much more for their overall approach about allowing the states maximum flexibility in internal decisions vis-a-vis the Democrats' emphasis on the federal government and the courts as prime social movers in our society. With the new concept of revenue sharing, Nixon especially gave the states a greater role in state and local planning for social programs than had heretofore been the case. Southerners especially appreciated the autonomy that this afforded their states. The desegregation controversy has largely passed, but it can be argued that Nixon's new emphasis on the states--expanded during the Reagan years through growing use of "block grants"--won over the South to a new appreciation for Republicanism, which meshed more closely with the South's old "states rights" philosophy than with the federal social activism of the Democrats.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/21/2003

There's some interesting material here, more than enough to get me to look at George Schultz's essay.

I am puzzled by one statement of Small's. He states that "the Republican Party . . . ran the country when de jure segregation finally ended in the South."

I don't think so. The Democrats had majorities in Congress. To be sure, the power of that majority was limited by Southern Democrats, who often worked with conservatie Republicans, but that is a very different thing.

Nor did Nixon "create the new Republican majority."

Nixon's opportunity, and challenge, was that Americans had begun to shift away from liberalism but they did not have a clear destination in mind. Southern whites, and ethnic whites in the North, could be appealed to because of their disaffection over forced desegregation. But outside of that issue, the conservative appeal was still limited.

When Nixon discredited himself (and dragged down other republicans with him) in Watergate, voters returned to the Democrats and seemed willing to support a moderate Democratic vision from Jimmy Carter.

Carter's mistakes, and a world situation that might have swamped anyone, led to the election of Reagan and a Republican Senate. But it was Reagan's perceived success (I didn't perceive it but a lot of Americans disagreed) that began to make conservatism a dominant--but never all powerful--force, and made voting Republican a respectable option for the majority of voters.