In one of history’s smaller but nonetheless hideous ironies, James J. Kilpatrick’s career was saved on September 15, 1963 when a Ku Klux Klan bomb destroyed the African American Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama.
In the wake of that tragedy, the editor of the Saturday Evening Post decided to spike an article written by Kilpatrick that was scheduled to run in the magazine’s next issue. Kilpatrick, who was at the time one of the nation’s most ardent—and certainly most articulate—foes of Civil Rights, had penned a story with the title “The Hell He Is Equal.”
In that article that never ran, Kilpatrick wrote, “There are respected Negro teachers, lawyers, doctors, writers. Of course, there are. But in general terms, where is the Negro to be found? Why, sir, he is still carrying the hod. He is still digging the ditch. He is down at the gin mill shooting craps. He is lying limp in the middle of the sidewalk, yelling he is equal. The hell he is equal.”
Kilpatrick went on in that vein for quite a while: “When the Negro today proclaims to demand his ‘equality,’ he is talking of equality within the terms of Western civilization. And what, pray, has he contributed to it? Putting aside conjecture, wishful thinking, and a puerile jazz-worship, what has he in fact contributed to it? The blunt answer, may it please the court, is very damned little.”
Had the Birmingham bombing occurred later, and had Kilpatrick’s story run, his career almost surely would have had a very different outcome, i.e., toast. I include that qualifying “almost” in the previous sentence because as noxious as Kilpatrick could be, he was also nimble.
Within a year, the Richmond, Virginia newspaper editor would have his first nationally syndicated newspaper column. Within a decade he would become one of the most recognizable talking heads on television, thanks to his tenure as the conservative voice on 60 Minutes’ Point/Counterpoint—a gig so prominent that it was famously parodied on Saturday Night Live (Dan Ackroyd’s “Jane, you ignorant slut” was directly inspired by Kilpatrick’s fulminating, Menckenesque persona).
But while his ability to not only survive but thrive in a changing social and political landscape is remarkable, it is not the most noteworthy thing about Kilpatrick. Were he only the lone apologist for segregation who managed to survive the civil rights era, he would be but a footnote in the annals of American journalism. But Kilpatrick did more.
As much as anyone, he taught the conservative movement how to talk in code about race—Kilpatrick himself could easily have scripted Ronald Reagan's tirade about the welfare queen in a Cadillac, but anyone could do it once he showed you how: all you had to do was omit any mention of race from your sentence while retaining the tropes of bigotry. And he did this, almost miraculously, without ever completely forsaking the sentiments expressed in that unpublished Saturday Evening Post story.
Two things happened to make this possible: First, Kilpatrick modified his comments on racial issues, because he wanted a nationally syndicated column, and there was, as the first syndicate to hire him pointed out, no national market for a fire-breathing segregationist. So he toned down his rhetoric as the price he had to pay to gain a wider audience. He also learned to say many of the things he’d been saying for years without being so abrasive about it (although in private correspondence he was often as fire-breathing as ever: he never, for example, seems to have forsaken the idea that whites and blacks were not equal).
The second thing that gave Kilpatrick’s career a push was the country’s tilt toward conservatism in the wake of the ’60s social upheaval. With the ascendancy of Nixon and his Silent Majority, newspapers and TV were hungry for conservative voices to fill their op-ed pages and on-air commentary segments, and Kilpatrick was nothing if not attention-grabbing. Moreover, the topics of the day—such as court-ordered school busing and affirmative action—supplied red-meat targets for his columns. The country’s conservative tilt gave Kilpatrick cover, and he in turn supplied the Silent Majority with justification for its frustration: his columns were models of the politics of resentment. Affirmative action was robbing hard-working, deserving white people of jobs. Busing was nothing more than judicial overreach.
As William P. Hustwit observes in his dispassionate but eviscerating biography, James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation, Kilpatrick’s column, A Conservative View, “cast white southerners as part of the constituency that Nixon came to champion, not as ‘rednecks, bigots, and racists,’ but as ‘decent, law-abiding, taxpaying Americans who are fed up with practically everything.’ Everything including civil rights.” Just as his bellicose persona on 60 Minutes presaged the aggrieved bullying of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, his columns gave aid and comfort in the form of intellectual justification to a host of readers who would one day live happily in the Fox News echo chamber. Kilpatrick was Roger Ailes’ John the Baptist.
By the early 70s, Kilpatrick was claiming that he had moved on from his segregationist days. Certainly he was no longer openly advocating noxious ideas like massive resistance. But he never seemed to encounter any aspect of racial integration that he could embrace, and even a casual reader of his columns could not fail to find vestiges of the Kilpatrick who wrote “The Hell He Is Equal.” Whenever he commented on the racial struggles in South Africa and then-Rhodesia, for example, he never stopped insisting that whites were better equipped to handle the problems of those countries. In his writing, there is never an inkling that the world is not a level playing field or that remedies such as busing and affirmative action, however clumsy, might nevertheless be the lesser evils. And while he did eulogize Martin Luther King, he opposed the dedication of a national holiday in King’s name. (Kilpatrick’s idea of black heroes were the “hardworking” Booker T. Washington and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “serene” Uncle Tom.)
Early and late, Kilpatrick always sounded like a man on the wrong side of history. Compare his example against his contemporaries in Southern journalism, such as Eugene Patterson, Claude Sitton, Hodding Carter, and and the legendary Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill (whom Kilpatrick, like his allies on the Citizens Council and other diehard segregationists, always referred to as Rastus McGill) and he always comes up short. In The Race Beat, their Pulitzer-prize winning history of how journalists of all stripes covered the Civil Rights movement, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff leave no doubt that these reporters, editors, and columnists—many of whom faced death threats for what they wrote—were the heroes of their profession. Kilpatrick and other segregationist editors, in contrast, look pathetically small as they tirelessly opposed, obstructed, and undermined any racial progress.
Even in 1965, after he had his nationally syndicated column, Kilpatrick found it hard to be compassionate. As Hustwit notes, when the Klan murdered the white Civil Rights worker Viola Liuzzo, Kilpatrick filed a column bemoaning the murder on the grounds that it might goad Congress into passing the new voting rights bill. When his syndicate killed that submission, he filed a new column decrying the deleterious effects on white businesses caused by a boycott called by King in Montgomery, Alabama.
In the last third of his career, Kilpatrick occasionally wrote columns with the dateline Scrabble, Virginia. It was not an entirely fictitious place: there had once been a tiny community by that name in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where he had a weekend home. But the place was history by the time he began using the dateline, and the columns he wrote were, if not exactly fiction, then certainly out of time. They celebrated a pastoral life populated by self-reliant yeomen who took care of themselves and their land with no need of outsiders or their bureaucracies.
About the time Kilpatrick began the Scrabble columns, I went to work as an editorial writer on a series of North Carolina newspapers. One of my duties was to prep the syndicated columns for the op-ed pages, so I read a lot of Kilpatrick. I was always struck by the difference between his regular columns and the ones with the Scrabble dateline. It was almost as though they were written by two different men, so much so that I began to suspect that one or the other of his voices was dishonest. I always hoped that he would find a way to blend the two Kilpatricks, but I never saw him do it. He was either pining for a lost fictitious Eden, beguiled by the country life as only a city boy can be, or fulminating against the world at his doorstep in Washington, D.C.
It would be wonderful to say that James J. Kilpatrick offers us an example of a man who fought his way free of racism without sacrificing principle—that he became, in other words, a conservative washed clean of his segregationist past. Such examples do exist, after all. Think of South Carolina’s Tom Turnipseed, a political operative for George Wallace who did experience a road-to-Damascus moment and rejected everything he once stood for.
Kilpatrick’s transformation was far more subtle and far less convincing, inspired not by a change of heart so much as by a desire for a bigger audience. As Hustwit points out, Kilpatrick was always the Oklahoma City boy who yearned for acceptance among the elites of his adopted Virginia and then Washington: “For every newspaper post he took up … Kilpatrick adapted his opinions to fit the needs and expectations of his employers and peers.” And in that respect, he never failed. Kilpatrick may not have been a genius of ideas, but as the one virulent segregationist spokesman to enjoy a successful career after the Civil Rights era, he had no equal.