James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation by William P. Hustwit (review)
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James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation. By William P. Hustwit. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. 310. $34.95 cloth; $34.95 ebook)

Historians of the South and the black freedom struggle have long understood the connections between segregationists and contemporary conservatives. William P. Hustwit’s biography of segregationist-turned-New Right thought (and the life of journalist James J. Kilpatrick) makes those linkages clearer. Hustwit offers a detailed analysis of how Kilpatrick negotiated, renegotiated, reinvented, and repackaged massive resistance thought into a mainstream container that resonated with society’s conservative turn in post-civil-rights America. His central argument is that Kilpatrick’s segregation apologia launched his career nationally and his promotion of race-neutral New Right principles became a “conduit between his region’s conservatives and their ideological counterparts beyond the South” (p. 2). Kilpatrick expressed conservatism in a new language that enjoyed widespread appeal.

Kilpatrick’s contributions and connections to the New Right are extensive, including the current miasma of what counts as twenty-four hour “news” channels. Using archival collections belonging to Kilpatrick and William F. Buckley, in addition to voluminous newspaper articles and editorials, the book is part media history and an exposition of tensions in segregationist thought.

Hustwit exposes the segregationists’ disagreements regarding tactics and strategy. Massive resisters disagreed over the role race should play in their rhetoric. Kilpatrick believed opposition to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and integration could best be sold outside the South if stated in terms of states’ rights rather than relying on racial [End Page 317] stereotypes. Ultimately, they sided with Kilpatrick’s denunciation of the Warren Court, which cloaked racism with language about the supremacy of law. In charting the twists and turns in resisters’ ideas during the height of the black freedom struggle, Hustwit demonstrates how it took several important figures to transform defenses of segregation into debates about freedom and the Constitution—especially strict constructionist interpretations. Here readers encounter mainstays in the development of the New Right, including Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Robert Bork, each of whom took a page from Kilpatrick’s playbook.

One chapter titled “Newspeak” reveals Kilpatrick’s motivations for reinventing himself as a steadfast proponent of property rights, individualism, states’ rights, and limited government—tenets that are routinely blared out on the typical Fox News segment. Kilpatrick quit his Richmond job to become a Washington, D.C., political insider, and at that point in his career, as a syndicated columnist, he popularized the current notion of “racism in reverse” in opposition to affirmative action and busing programs. After another metamorphosis as an agrarian country squire on a farm near the Rappahannock River that served as inspiration for “Scrabble” articles about the post-civil-rights southern identity, Kilpatrick became a fixture on Martin Agronsky’s political talk show that propelled his career in conservative punditry and earned him a spot on 60 Minutes. Hustwit explains that the journalist adapted because it paid the bills.

“Kilpatrick survived” his segregationist past, Hustwit informs, unlike others who experienced career death in post-1970s society complete with a new racial ethos (p. 3). Yet other historians may point to segregationists with long shelf-lives such as Strom Thurmond (RS.C.), John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), and Rev. Jerry Falwell. Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) enjoyed a long political career before racial code words no longer concealed his real ideas.

Hustwit examined Kilpatrick because of his “intermediary” status between “the mandarins who built the modern Republican Party” and the Suburban Warriors who Lisa McGirr analyzed (p. 3). His [End Page 318] argument is quite convincing, but some readers may wish he devoted more attention to anticommunism and conservative ideology and southerners’ reaction to 1960s era school-prayer decisions by the Supreme Court.

Kevin Boland Johnson

Kevin Boland Johnson is a doctoral candidate in American history at Mississippi State University and a 2013 NAEd/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow. His dissertation, “Guardians of Historical Knowledge: Textbook Politics, Conservative Activism, and School Reform in Mississippi, 1928-1988,” examines conservative ideology and efforts by reformers to shape education policy by controlling the statewide textbook adoption process.