I agree with J.E. Dyer that James Kilpatrick was an important conservative political writer as well as an admirable stylist and an engaging if crotchety television talking head. But however much we are inclined at this moment to remember his principled writing on a great many topics, we ought to resist the impulse to rationalize his writing on the one issue that made his name and reputation in his early years: segregation.
One need not be a foe of federalism, at whose “unmarked grave” my colleague eloquently mourns, to understand that the purpose of the states’ rights arguments employed by Southern intellectuals like Kilpatrick in the 1950s and 60s was a defense of a system that was racist. It may well be that there was a time when belief in segregation was respectable. But it never deserved that respectability, and it is a blot on the honor of those conservatives who supported it. Kilpatrick lived long enough to understand that he had been wrong. But unlike those intellectuals who supported Marxism in their youth but eventually went on to become its greatest foes, Kilpatrick’s later comments about his having provided an intellectual facade for the “Jim Crow” South were more wistful than contrite.
The rise of American conservatism in the late 20th century was the result of it having transcended the racism and anti-Semitism that had once characterized so much of the traditional right. If there is a “victor’s monument” to be placed on the memory of Kilpatrick’s long defense of segregation, it is one that properly marks the transition of a movement away from the prejudices of a bygone era that are rightly unlamented.