Rightists, Racists, & Separatists: A White Bloc in the Making?
If 1963 signaled the emergence of the Negro community as a significant force in American society, 1964 may well come to be regarded as the year in which white reaction to the civil rights revolution began to make itself felt on a national scale. The so-called “white backlash” has not as yet been dramatized in any single event comparable to the March on Washington, which marked the culmination of the impact of the Negro cause on the nation's consciousness, while at the same time providing clear and eloquent testimony to the achievement of Negro solidarity. However, the signs are now everywhere at hand that the civil rights movement is running into increased opposition from various sectors of the white community and, further, that the proponents of moderation—particularly on the local and state levels—are finding it more and more difficult to formulate, much less negotiate, a program under which racial equality in housing, education, and employment can be peaceably and effectively extended.
The most highly publicized evidence of Northern resistance has been the showing that Governor Wallace of Alabama made in the Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland primaries this past spring: roughly 34, 29.8, and 42.7 per cent respectively of the Democratic vote. Liberals, anxious to allay the fear that a “white bloc” may be coming into existence, have pointed to the success of other primary candidates who were identified with the civil rights position, and have also claimed that Wallace's vote in each state was swelled by factors having nothing to do with civil rights. Nevertheless, there is no question that Wallace's appearance in these states provided the first major opportunity the North has had to give political expression to the negative feelings about the civil rights revolution that are rapidly developing as the issues of federal intervention and Negro militancy begin pressing closer to home. This was particularly evident in Maryland. Not only did Wallace do well there, but a Newsweek poll found that 39 per cent of the state's Democrats agreed with him in thinking that the management of racial questions was a state and local matter that should not be deeded over to “the social engineers in Washington, D.C.” Newsweek also estimated that the Negro demonstrations against Wallace in Cambridge increased his vote by nearly ten per cent.
Much has been made, particularly in recent months, of the harm that Negroes are doing their own cause in the North by adopting extremist tactics like school boycotts and rent strikes. However this may be, it is also true that opposition to such tactics has become a respectable cover for opposition to integration itself, once it begins to loom as an open possibility in the local school or neighborhood or union. Indeed, even before the passage of the civil rights bill, it was evident that the real struggle over integration would have to be fought out in the local rather than the national arena. The one mass protest by Negroes that has elicited strong white support was the March on Washington; as for demonstrations in particular communities, they are regarded as ineffective and harmful by the large majority of white Americans. In their recent study, The Negro Revolution in America, William Brink and Louis Harris find that whites stand “2 to 1 in opposition to lunch-counter sit-ins, 4 to 3 against Negro willingness to go to jail voluntarily for their cause, 5 to 3 against picketing of stores and over 10 to 1 against the ‘lie-downs’ in front of trucks or construction sites.”
Given such attitudes, it is no wonder that in community after community the consensus on civil rights that exists on the national level should be breaking down. In Berkeley, California—hardly a bastion of prejudice or reaction—a fair housing ordinance that had been enacted six months earlier was subjected to a referendum and rescinded in what a local newspaper spoke of as “the most convulsive, bitter disagreement in [Berkeley's] history.” In Seattle, Washington—another enlightened city with a large university population—an open-housing ordinance was defeated by a better than 2 to 1 vote, though the ordinance was supported by more than 75 civic and religious groups and opposed only by real-estate interests. In Detroit, a fair-housing ordinance also went down to defeat, and several hundred thousand signatures have been obtained appealing for a referendum which would limit the enforcement power in the new state constitution to bar discrimination in housing. In Illinois, a fair housing bill was unable to get through the lower house of the state legislature. In California, an amendment to nullify the Rumford Fair Housing Act and to bar any future restriction against discrimination in housing has been placed on the November ballot.
On the issue of school integration, Northern white resistance is becoming even more widespread and severe. In New York, about a hundred “Parents and Taxpayers” groups have been organized to oppose the Board of Education in its efforts to decrease racial imbalance in the city school system. The PAT has already filed 32 suits against the Board,. and the extent of its popular strength was dramatically evidenced a few months ago by a demonstration of 15,000 members and sympathizers at City Hall. In nearby Mount Vernon, the PAT groups were able to muster enough support to defeat a proposed Princeton plan for local schools. In Boston, four of the five members of the School Committee campaigned for re-election on a platform of opposition to NAACP demands that de facto school segregation be corrected; all four were returned to office by overwhelming majorities. In Cleveland, demonstrations against new school construction in Negro areas, along with efforts to “diffuse” Negro children through the classrooms of white schools to which they had been bussed but within which they were still being kept separate, led to pitched battles that began to approach the proportions of a race riot.
And so it has gone in Chicago and San Francisco and Philadelphia and Los Angeles, with local white groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of White People forming to press their claims against those of the Negro community, and support for integrationist policies increasingly becoming a matter of Negro voting strength as against the voting strength of other minority groups. In Kansas City, for example, a referendum to repeal a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation was narrowly defeated by 1500 votes; more than half of the total vote against repeal was cast by Negroes, while the Italian community came out solidly in favor of repeal.
Thus, it has now become obvious that anti-Negro sentiment is a nation-wide rather than merely a sectional phenomenon. Just as the racial problem has been spread by the heavy migration of Southern Negroes to the cities of the North during the past decade, so, too, has resistance to integration begun to diffuse itself along the spectrum of American politics, creating strange new bedfellows as it goes. Commenting on Governor Wallace's showing in Wisconsin, an editorial in the Birmingham (Ala.) News suggested that “the white bloc may have finally come into being . . . if this becomes a widespread condition you will have to rewrite the book of American politics.” However premature this suggestion may seem, the elements of such a bloc are already quite visible. For there is emerging in the North a new attitude which may or may not favor the cause of civil rights in general, but which opposes the enforcement of any specific measures aimed at creating closer daily contact or competition with Negroes. And like the segregationist in the South, the Northerner who holds this attitude—he can be best described as a “separatist”—is looking for some way to express himself politically, both on the local and national scenes.
To take advantage of their new potential allies in the North, eight Southern states recently established so-called “sovereignity commissions.” The main instrument of these commissions is the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms, whose most notable activity to date has been an advertising campaign against the civil rights bill in more than 200 newspapers in Kansas, Oklahoma, downstate Illinois, Wyoming, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and New Hampshire.
It does not seem a mere coincidence that the activity of the Coordinating Committee should have been paralleled by a concerted drive against civil rights on the part of the “radical right.” The legal adviser to the Committee is John Satterfield, who performed the same role for ex-Governor Barnett of Mississippi, and who was once the president of Circuit Riders, Inc., an organization of laymen “opposing the propagation of Socialism, Communism, and all other un-American teaching in the Methodist Church”; the Committee's executive director is John J. Synon, formerly an officer of the widely-known public-relations firm of Selvege and Lee, which represents Portugal, Katanga, and several right-wing groups; the chairman is William Loeb, publisher of the arch-conservative Manchester (New Hampshire) Leader and a veteran of various radical-right organizations; the vice-chairman is James J. Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond (Virginia) News Leader, and probably the most effective segregationist thinker in the South.
What we see emerging here, then, is a coalition of racists and rightists coming together under the banner of opposition to the exertion of federal power involved in enforcing the civil rights of Negroes. Indeed, as William V. Shannon and a number of other commentators have pointed out, the “racist theme” shows every sign of replacing the Communist conspiracy as the principal propaganda line of reactionaries in both major parties. I have already spoken in these pages1 of how the radical right has come to provide a potential gathering ground for a broad body of Anglo-Saxon Americans who believe that the country has been stolen from them by the “minorities” and thereby betrayed into a posture of weakness and compliance abroad. Now that such developments as the withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and the Sino-Soviet split have stolen much of the apocalyptic thunder of the crusade against Communism, the old conservative slogans that served in the fight against the New Deal and the welfare state—“federal tyranny,” “preservation of the Constitution,” “American individualism”—are being applied to the civil rights struggle and used as a new rallying cry for right-wing support.
Evidence of a stepped-up effort by the radical right on behalf of the segregationist position is not hard to come by. The Manion Forum—a radio and television program that is carried by some 325 stations and has a mailing list of over one million—conducted a campaign against the civil rights bill as the “most insidious threat to American freedoms ever introduced in Congress . . . [one which] would destroy the personal and business rights [of] all citizens,” while the John Birch Society was engaging in “the most massive protest . . . that we have ever undertaken with regard to any legislation.” We, the People—another leading ultra-rightist group—also carried the Coordinating Committee's message to its followers, and, like the Manion Forum and the Birch Society, promoted extensive letter-writing campaigns to Senators and Congressmen. Gerald L. K. Smith's Christian Nationalist Crusade was active in the Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland primaries in Governor Wallace's behalf; so were the National States' Rights party, the John Birch Society, and the White Party of America.
As with the crusade against Communism, the anti-civil rights bloc fans outward from the radical right to the mass of “native” Americans, North as well as South, who feel encroached upon by an alien federal will, and to the ethnic minority groups who feel more immediately threatened by Negro demands. Governor Wallace's three campaigns give us a fairly good inkling of the complexion and strength of this incipient anti-integrationist bloc. Wallace originally entered the Wisconsin primary with the help of Mrs. Lloyd G. Herbstreith, whose husband is chairman of the Wisconsin Economic Freedom Committee, an organization devoted to the repeal of the federal income tax. Campaigning with extensive right-wing support and on a program of familiar conservative slogans and canards, he made a strong showing both in the ultra-conservative suburbs (where he out ran Wisconsin's Republican governor) and in the rural areas which were formerly McCarthyite strongholds. But he scored almost as heavily in the Democratic wards of Milwaukee—the predominantly Polish, Italian, and Serbian neighborhoods that border on the Negro area of the city. Similarly, in the Indiana primary, Wallace carried Lake County, a heavily industrialized complex that includes Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago and that has a large East-European and Negro population. In Maryland, Wallace won in the Italian and Irish districts of Baltimore, piled up huge majorities in the outlying counties where racial feeling runs strong, and only lost Governor Brewster's own county by a mere hundred-odd votes.
Much the same pattern as is found here can be traced in local communities: traditionally conservative elements of varying hues backed by one or more of the ethnic minorities who have generally opposed their new allies on other domestic issues. In Mount Vernon, New York, the decisive force against the Princeton plan was the town's large Italian community. In Jackson Heights (Queens), it was the predominantly Jewish population that protested against a similar plan. In Boston, the heaviest concentration of votes in support of the anti-integrationist incumbents of the School Committee came from the Italian and Irish working-class wards. In Philadelphia, the same two ethnic groups lined up behind a Republican candidate for mayor whose main campaign appeal was directed against the strong civil-rights stand of the incumbent Democrat. And in Chicago, the Polish community has been heavily represented in “home-owner” demonstrations against a recently passed open-occupancy ordinance.
This is not to say that the ethnic minorities are especially racist. Often they are merely a more coherent and readily identifiable segment of the working- and middle-class urban population which may embrace integration as a plank in the Democratic platform, but which is becoming militantly “separatist” at the local level, where it lives under the heavy pressure of an expanding Negro population. The attempt of Negroes to penetrate adjacent white minority-group neighborhoods not only arouses personal prejudice and individual defensiveness; it also arouses the fear that the cherished neighborhood culture will be destroyed.
And indeed, there is good reason for these groups to become defensive about their place in the rapidly shifting urban structure. In Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia, Negro school enrollment is approaching 50 per cent; in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and St. Louis, it already exceeds that figure. Moreover, there is the home-owner's fear for property values, which, in Samuel Lubell's view, “may well be the strongest single source of white resistance in the North.” Lubell finds that while white sentiment for open employment runs as high as 10 to 1, white antipathy against having a Negro buy the house next door runs just as high. And given the evidence of Berkeley, Seattle, Detroit, and other communities, the president of the National Association of Real Estate Boards may well be right in saying that there has been “a dramatic turn of public opinion” against what he calls “forced housing laws.” So far as schools are concerned, an analogous turn can be seen in the sudden discovery of the virtues of the neighborhood school.
Between the segregationists and the nativists of the radical right—who are opposed to integration on principle—and the separatists—who are opposed to it in practice on specific issues—there is, then, a large potential of political unrest that could very well undermine the national consensus expressed by the passage of the civil rights bill. While it is true that the widespread public turmoil over civil rights has up until now been exacerbated by the lack of a national law, it is also true that the enforcement of the law will give a powerful stimulus to the more determined factions of white resistance, and will provide fresh motives for their political association. The national figure who has now emerged to effect this association is, of course, Senator Goldwater. Quite clearly, Goldwater in his hopes for the Presidency is counting on a coalition of nativist, segregationist, and separatist elements that will cross the traditional party lines and group interests—much as they did for Governor Wallace. Hence his vehement final speech against the civil rights bill in which he raised the spectre of a “police state.” The image of the bill that he wished to create, and that he will presumably exploit to the hilt in the coming campaign, is of a massive act of federal aggression against the sovereign rights of the states and the freedoms of the individual American, as well as a brutal attempt to coerce association between the races.
It is in this last issue that the dynamite of the “racist theme” is lodged. For the fact is that most white Americans draw a line at a certain point against further association with Negroes and are easily persuaded to defend it. In the recent attempt to repeal the public accommodation ordinance in Kansas City, the local tavern owners were able to marshal a majority of the white population to vote against the ordinance, despite a concerted campaign by the religious, labor, political, and business leadership of the city to preserve it. Since there were no private or group interests of home, school, job, or neighborhood being threatened by the law, one can only assume that the hostility it provoked was a consequence of the general white antipathy against mixing with Negroes. This assumption is borne out on a broader front by a Newsweek survey, published nine months ago. Nearly half of the whites polled said they would object to having their child bring a Negro friend home for supper, while nine out of ten objected to intermarriage. The Newsweek survey also showed that racial stereotypes still play a dominant role in white attitudes. Thus, 75 percent of the whites polled expressed the belief that Negroes are less ambitious than whites; 71 per cent that they “smell different”; 69 per cent that they have looser morals; 49 per cent that they want to live on handouts; 44 per cent that they breed crime. Further, 74 per cent said that the Negroes have been pushing too hard. To be sure, such responses were often found to exist in a state of ambivalence, mixed with a generalized sympathy for the Negro plight. Once the civil rights issue invades the local community, however, prejudice usually proves to be far more flammable than sympathy.
The political implications of the Newsweek survey were summed up by a Republican leader in Chicago:
The key issue is white versus black, and it's much deeper than people realize. The Republicans don't have to do a damn thing. . . . We don't have to worry about losing the colored vote, because we never had it in the first place. We can just sit back and let the Republicans become the party of the white people: Gold-water is the natural symbol of this feeling. . . .
Indeed he is. In recent years, it is federal power which has mainly been responsible for the progress that has been made in meeting the Negro's demand for his rightful place in American society. The result of this state of affairs, however, has been a widening gap between the national will as expressed in the federal consensus and the will of the local community—between abstract support for civil rights and specific opposition to their implementation. Currently this gap is being exploited by Senator Goldwater in an effort to form a nationwide right-wing bloc. Whether such a bloc could gain him the Presidency remains doubtful. However, it does contain an alarming potential for spreading conflict between the races, for disrupting the national consensus, and for further immobilizing the already feeble reform impulses of contemporary America.
For if Negro militancy has produced a new opportunity for the rightists, it has produced a crisis among the liberals. As an advocate of the use of federal power to effect social reform, the American liberal in the 1930's entered into a natural alliance with labor—the first beneficiary of extended federal power. This alliance not only helped labor; it also vitalized liberalism. By contrast, the present alliance between the white liberal and the Negro is proving to be much less harmonious, inspiriting, and effective. True, the liberal has been successful at the national level in helping to bring federal power to bear on the establishment and protection of Negro rights. On the local level, however, his commitment has become indecisive.
Part of the problem is that the white liberal is white, and therefore subject to conditioning by the very prejudices he seeks to repress. Further, his own immediate self-interests are directly challenged by the Negro revolution, as they were not by the labor movement of the 30's. He is for open-occupancy laws, but would just as soon have his block remain predominantly white. He believes in integrated education, but if he sends his child to a public school, he would just as soon it be an “enlightened” one in his own neighborhood that segregates children according to “ability.” He is for increasing Negro voting power, but does not wish to lose control over the objectives to which it is put. While in the 30's he more or less subscribed to the notion that what was good for labor was good for the country, he now finds that his principles are at odds with any such doctrine in relation to the Negro.
Thus the liberal has come under increasingly vehement attack from the more militant Negro leadership. His position is denounced as one of “gradualism,” and his reliance upon the courts and limited federal legislation is dismissed as an evasion of the large-scale political and economic measures needed to cope with the Negro legacy of gross privation. Having adopted the strategy of overt social conflict—expressed by the slogan “Freedom Now!”—the militant Negro is inevitably led into asserting that “those who are not with us are against us.” The white liberal, on the other hand, regards the “more militant than thou” attitude of his Negro critics as a reckless stance posing as a strategy, one that converts the civil rights struggle from a movement to unite Americans in support of the principle of equal rights into an open conflict between the races.
Since Negro strategy is becoming more responsive to the mood of the Negro masses and less concerned with the requirements of the liberal coalition, it must perforce rely upon marshalling the Negro's own economic and political influence, instead of waiting for the coalition to negotiate Negro claims with the society-at-large. Though the Negro is vague and reckless in his charges of betrayal—he fails, for example, to take account of the fact that the religious groups now in the forefront of the white opposition to segregation and separatism are made up of liberals too—he is nevertheless right in his feeling that the liberal coalition has no program for changing a society which grinds him down and seems reluctant to provide any better prospects for his children. To live for one day in Harlem is to realize that any contemporary Emancipation through civil rights legislation is going to require a Reconstruction of the welfare state to include the Negro, as the other ethnic minorities have been included. In this struggle to be included, the Negro lacks any major radical movement (such as the trade unions) to represent him. Consequently, he must continue to push hard—hard enough so that he will at last be felt.
In sum, as the impact of the Negro revolution spreads from Mississippi to Michigan, from the struggle to implement basic civil rights to the more difficult questions of economic and social integration, we can expect the national political consensus to come under heavy pressure from both sides. The ultra-right with its fundamentalist and nativist following is trying to make common cause with the Southern segregationist and Northern separatist in order to carry out an assault against the modern instrumentalities of popular democracy that largely reside today in the power of the federal government. And even failing the election of Senator Goldwater, the right can expect to gain strength in community and state politics where the white backlash is already taking strong effect, and where its own organizational program is most effective. When Senator Mundt declares, “Let's get together people who think alike in this country and who think conservatively into some kind of political party,” he is talking, finally, about white racial solidarity in much the same fashion as did the Birmingham News after Wallace's showing in Wisconsin.
However, the political crisis toward which we are moving has been brought on not by the potential strength of the right-wing bloc, but rather by the pressures of Negro militancy. These, in turn, can be traced to the evil anomaly of American society whereby the minority that was most exploited and alienated has been the last to be compensated and integrated. More immediately, the crisis provoked by the Negro can be laid to the malaise of the political movement that has claimed to represent his interests: the liberalism of the New Deal. Having made the trade-union movement an escalator into the middle class, and having carried the religious and ethnic minorities to the point of virtually full participation in the society, the New Deal coalition ran out of steam. The massive job of educating and planning that was needed to bring the Negro into this new society was not done. The Negro is now demanding that it be done—that the welfare state be reactivated and expanded so that within it he can find adequate employment, housing, education, medical care, and other sources of the sustenance of freedom, including hope. It cannot be expected that the Negro should be responsible for creating and marshalling support for such a program, one that will require a revolution in social planning as well as public opinion. He can only agitate for it. As is, in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, the Negro is more exposed to social reaction within the white communities than he has been at any time since Reconstruction.
1 “The Radical Right and the Rise of the Fundamentalist Minority” (April 1962).