Goldwater And His 1964 Allies

Via Jamelle Bouie, we learn that Kevin Williamson is at it again: another revisionist take on the history of the two major political parties with respect to civil rights. This time Williamson aims at suggesting that in the 1964 presidential election, one party nominated a brave civil rights champion while the other nominated a bigot and long-time ally of Jim Crow advocates. But surprise! Williamson insists the former was Barry Goldwater while the latter was Lyndon Johnson.

In addressing Williamson’s longer revisionist take last year, I noted that his claim that white southerners gravitated to the GOP in and after 1964 because it was the party of civil rights is patently absurd. But to give him credit, he seems to understand that he’s got to make the case that Goldwater ran as a civil rights candidate in 1964 or his whole case collapses.

But instead of writing about Goldwater’s actual 1964 campaign (or LBJ’s, for that matter), Williamson writes about Goldwater’s local support for desegregation (though largely, when it came to commercial matters, of the “voluntary” kind) as a Phoenix merchant in the early 1950s, which he contrast with Johnson’s contemporaneous membership in the Senate’s southern bloc. That’s all fair enough, as far as it goes. But it has zero to do with 1964, in which it was universally understood that support for or opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964–all of it, not just the parts Goldwater (and every segregationist in America) considered unconstitutional–defined support for and opposition to the civil rights agenda as it was universally defined.

Williamson accuses Democrats of duping African-American voters in 1964 and afterwards into voting for them, presumably via all those federal benefits (including the right to eat in a restaurant alongside white folks) that Democrats used to imprison black folks on a new “plantation” of dependency. It’s an insulting argument, but hardly uncommon among conservatives (see Rand Paul’s recent “outreach” speeches at black colleges). But what Williamson doesn’t deal with is why all those southern racists who voted Democratic up to and in most cases beyond the New Deal moved en masse into the Republican column, for the first time ever, in 1964. At a time (prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965) when black voters were rare in Mississippi, Goldwater won 87% of the vote in that state. He won 69% in Alabama, where Johnson (the hero of segregationists according to Williamson) was not even allowed on the ballot. In general, Goldwater’s vote was directly correlated to the size and intensity of southern segregationist sentiment (and to black disenfranchisement), and within each state directly tracked the old Dixiecrat enclaves of 1948.

So to buy Williamson’s hypothesis, you have to believe that not only were African-American voters universally duped (94% voted for Johnson), but so, too, were southern white racists. In other words, the vast majority of the voters most focused on civil rights fundamentally misunderstood what the two parties and their presidential candidates stood for on this issue–but Kevin Williamson sees through it all!

Mr. Williamson really needs to find a different subject on which to write.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.