The Civil Rights Movement

I recently spent two delightful weeks in Dixie, rendered more so by the fact that in the land of wonderful pork, the Confederate government has outlawed Lent. Traveling with a friend, we stopped in one town in Alabama to look at a monument to the Civil Rights movement. I was struck by the fact that, in the Deep South, the story told on the monument was entirely one-sided. The only perspective represented was that of the blacks in the movement.

As an historian, I know that in any conflict situation, each side has its narrative. Accurate history cannot be written based only on the narrative of the winners. The losers also have a story to tell, and it is part of history. History based only on the winner’s narrative is mere propaganda.

Shortly after I returned to the frozen North, the New York Times (of April 6) caught my attention with a front-page headline that read, “Civil Rights Sins, Curated by One of the Sinners.” The “sins” in question were any opposition to the Civil Rights movement, and the “sinner” was the state of Mississippi. Once again, “history” is presented based solely on one narrative. But that is not all: the Civil Rights movement is in effect deified. To oppose it was and is to “sin.”

Here the hand of cultural Marxism reveals itself. Not from Marx but from Nietzsche the Frankfurt School drew the “transvaluation of all values.” That means all the old sins become virtues, and all the old virtues become sins. All types and varieties of sexual relations are okay, but anyone who defends local traditions against a doctrine of rights without responsibilities (as preached in Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization) is a “sinner.” Accurate history is not to be written, only history that serves ideological ends, especially “liberation.” Cultural Marxism yields the worst of all Puritanisms, Puritanism without God.

How should cultural conservatives evaluate the Civil Rights movement? Unlike the ideologues, we take both narratives into account, those of southern blacks fighting for Civil Rights and other southerners, mostly but not all whites, who fought to maintain the South’s traditional race relations.

From a legal standpoint, there is little question that racial segregation enforced by law was unconstitutional. However, there is equally little question that racial integration enforced by law is unconstitutional. Our limited governments, federal and state, were never empowered to regulate such matters by law. Freedom of association, which must include freedom not to associate, is basic to American rights. How people associate was left to custom, habit, and tradition, which varied place to place. The authors of our Constitution had no ambition to make life in South Carolina the same as life in Massachusetts.

The South explained that the Constitution’s promise of equality under the law was met by the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Cultural conservatives may find that acceptable, as reflecting long-standing local traditions. But realists that we are, we also recognize that the “equal” part of “separate but equal” was largely ignored. Facilities intended for blacks under segregation were almost always inferior to those intended for whites. That is not something we can find acceptable, because it clearly does violate the principle of equality under the law. The South should have been faced with a choice: either make the “equal” part of “separate but equal” real, or integrate. But the ideologues gave it no choice: under what was essentially a second Reconstruction, the South was forced to abandon freedom of association. Some rights, like some animals, are more equal than others.

The central question cultural conservatism poses to the Civil Rights movement comes straight from Edmund Burke. When asked to congratulate the French people on their new-found rights, courtesy of the Revolution, Burke replied that before we do so, we should see what they do with those rights. Cultural conservatives look at results, not merely intentions.

The results thus far of the Civil Rights movement point again to the need to consider both narratives, those of the winners and the losers. Southern opponents of the Civil Rights movement often said, “We know black people better than you do. We have lived beside them and with them all our lives. Without external pressure to behave well, their communities will fall apart.”

Some years ago, I was talking with a prominent Washington black at a cocktail party. He said he had just returned from a southern city, now suffering badly from black crime. Needing something late at night, he had gone to a nearby 7-11, where he got talking with the young black woman who ran the store. She said to him, “It’s gotten so bad, I wish we had segregation back.” She knew the urban black community under segregation had been a safe and decent place.

While the Civil Rights movement undoubtedly helped many blacks to join the middle class, something cultural conservatives welcome—we want an America that is virtually all middle class, not necessarily in income, but in morals, values, and behavior—when we ask Burke’s question of inner-city blacks, the answer is discouraging. Replacing liberty with license, too many have used the freedoms the Civil Rights movement gave them to wreck what were, up through the 1950s, safe, culturally middle class communities. Inner-city blacks’ lives today are on the whole worse than they were under segregation (de jure segregation down south, de facto segregation up north).

The realities are well enough known: an illegitimacy rate of 80%, a rate of violent crime twelve times the white rate (most victims are black), welfare dependency passed on from one generation to another, etc. Many young blacks now lack even the most basic knowledge of how to live: how to study, hold a job, clean a house, cook a meal. They are losing culture itself.

The role of cultural Marxism in all this is ironic. Blacks are one of the cultural Marxists’ sacred “victims groups,” the highest status one can obtain in that ideology. But beyond the rhetoric, cultural Marxism has done the urban black community harm that would have appalled Simon Legree. When cultural Marxism broke out of its academic ghetto and engulfed American society in the 1960s, white kids in college did whatever felt good, then went on to get their law degrees and MBAs and join the middle class. In the black inner city, they just kept on doing it, to the point where a culture of instant gratification is now general and, as always, catastrophic. It’s an old rule of history: when the upper classes catch cold, the lower classes get pneumonia.

More, because cultural Marxism preaches that all blacks’ troubles are the fault of whites (“white racism”), black racism, black hatred of whites, is now common in black urban communities. (In the rural and town [not city] South, I never encountered it; all the blacks I met there were as friendly as southern whites.) The message disempowers blacks, because if their problems are whites’ fault, blacks can do nothing about them. All the black urban community can do is wallow endlessly in its sins, until whites somehow rescue them (“reparations”). This is of course nonsense: earlier generations of blacks created a good community, one that revolved around the black church (you will never meet better Christians than the black church ladies), under more difficult external circumstances.

At present, cultural Marxism makes any real history of the Civil Rights movement impossible; it permits only hagiography. After cultural Marxism joins economic Marxism in history’s wastebasket and genuine history can be written, the history of the Civil Rights movement will take both narratives into account, those of the winners and the losers. When that time comes, the Civil Rights movement may be seen very differently.