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Richard Nixon and the Desegregation of Southern Schools
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Richard Nixon and the Desegregation of Southern Schools

Scholars assessing Richard Nixon's contribution to the desegregation of Southern schools have often been unimpressed. His biographer Stephen Ambrose concedes that there was some White House contribution, but observes that "Nixon had to be hauled kicking and screaming into desegregation on a meaningful scale, and he did what he did not because it was right but because he had no choice."1 The political scientist Michael Genovese concurs, telling us that Nixon sought to "withdraw the federal government from its efforts at desegregation."2 A recent civil rights dictionary concludes that this was "the first successful presidential candidate to be opposed to civil rights enforcement," adding that "many of his tactics thwarted the furthering of school desegregation."3 The noted civil rights historian, William Chafe, meanwhile, contends that "Nixon repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to the politics of polarization"; "continued to embrace" southern evasions that "had been invalidated by the Supreme Court"; and used "the power of the presidency to delay, if not halt completely, federally imposed school desegregation."4 And Kevin O'Reilly, in an overview of presidential leadership on civil rights, finds the 37th president to have been essentially indistinguishable from the race-baiting George Wallace. Nixon resented the Alabamian, he reveals, because "he wanted the gutter all to himself." Considering a number of contenders, he concludes that "school desegregation emerged as the administration's most important and enduring (anti)civil rights crusade."5

It is certainly the case that Richard Nixon sought to woo the white South as president, recognizing that, without its support, he would not [End Page 367] have defeated Hubert Humphrey in 1968. During that campaign, he had won support in the South by opposing busing and judicial activism, and by remarking that "I don't believe you should use the South as a whipping boy."6 And his subsequent presidential legacy includes a whole series of incriminating actions, statements, and appointments: the selection of John Mitchell (architect of Nixon's Southern Strategy) as attorney general, and the racially insensitive Spiro Agnew as vice president; the nominations of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court; the sacking of Leon Panetta as director of his Office for Civil Rights, for excessive integrationist zeal; the strident anti-busing crusade of 1971–72. When one compares this record with the strong moral leadership that Lyndon Johnson had provided, it seems obvious that Nixon was no friend of civil rights.7

However, this is not the whole story. As Hugh Davis Graham and John Skrentny have shown, the Nixon administration also expanded affirmative action and sought to promote minority business development.8 And Dean Kotlowski adds to that list Nixon's support for extending the Voting Rights Act.9 But the most dramatic instance of strong presidential leadership, Kotlowski goes on to argue, was in the area of school desegregation. When Johnson left office, fifteen years after Brown v Board of Education, 68 percent of African American children in the South still attended all-black schools. By the fall of 1970, that figure had declined to 18.5 percent.10

How can one reconcile the occurrence of this astonishingly abrupt social revolution with the conventional portrait of President Nixon? Some of those writers cited above have simply ignored it. Others acknowledge it, but argue that the credit belongs elsewhere: with judges, civil rights lawyers, congressional liberals, or bottom-up protest activity. More recently, a third school of thought has emerged, whose contributors hold Nixon partly responsible. According to these writers, Nixon took the lead in part because he was more liberal on civil rights than has customarily been acknowledged.11

In this article I argue that Nixon did indeed play a decisive role in breaking massive resistance to school desegregation, but that it was his relative conservatism on matters of race and education that allowed him to play a constructive role. The story of his engagement with the issue during the first two years of his presidency reveals plenty of instances of crass, amoral posturing for political effect (especially during 1969), but it also brings to light a much less familiar Nixon, confronted with...