National Review's Ugly Civil Rights History

Conservative Magazine Tries To Re-Appropriate The Civil Rights Movement

National Review has published numerous articles this week marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s seminal “I have a dream” speech. Given its ugly history, the long-running conservative magazine is ill-suited for such transparent attempts to re-appropriate the civil rights movement. National Review opposed major civil rights legislation and published appallingly racist commentary during the height of the civil rights movement.

In an editorial published this morning, the editors of National Review invoke the March on Washington in order to attack the “decrepitude of today's civil-rights movement” and label the original civil rights movement “in a crucial sense conservative” because “it did not seek to invent rights, but to secure ones that the government already respected in principle.”

In a nod to the magazine's own shameful history, the editors concede that “too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine” missed what it sees as the centrally conservative and theological arguments underpinning the movement:

Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time. They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren't wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context. It is a mark of the success of King's movement that almost all Americans can now see its necessity.

It's commendable that the editors are acknowledging the magazine's role in opposing important facets of the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, claiming that National Review “worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government” glosses over the odious nature of some of the magazine's writing from the 50s and 60s, when that publication stood athwart history yelling stop as King and his allies fought to end a brutal regime of racial segregation and voter disenfranchisement.

In his 2007 book The Conservative Ascendancy, historian Donald Critchlow documents that from the founding of the magazine in 1955, the editors of National Review “opposed federal involvement in enforcing equal access to public accommodations and protecting black voting rights in the South.” Though the National Review “based their opposition on constitutional grounds and conservative resistance to radical social change,” Critchlow explains that “their rhetoric overstepped the bounds of civility and was racially offensive.”

As an example, Critchlow points to an unsigned March 1960 editorial that announces, “In the Deep South the Negroes are, by comparison with the Whites, retarded” ('unadvanced' the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People might put it)." The magazine used this assertion as justification for why “leadership in the South, then quite properly rests in White hands.”

[Arch-conservative Senator Barry] Goldwater's views were echoed by the editors of National Review, who from the inception of the magazine in 1955 opposed federal involvement in enforcing equal access to public accommodations and protecting black voting rights in the South. They based their opposition on constitutional grounds and conservative resistance to radical social change. However principled their justifications, their rhetoric overstepped the bounds of civility and was racially offensive. In a March 1960 unsigned editorial, National Review declared, “We offer the following on the crisis in the Senate and the South: In the Deep South the Negroes are, by comparison with the Whites, retarded” ('unadvanced' the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People might put it) ... Leadership in the South, then quite properly rests in White hands. Upon the White population this fact imposes moral obligations of paternalism, patience, protection, devotion, and sacrifice." The editorial added that “the attempt to hand over to the Negro the raw political power with which to alter it is hardly a solution. It is a call to upheaval, which ensues when reality and unbridled abstractions meet head-on.” [Donald Critchlow, The Conservative Ascendency, pp 73-74

Publishing material arguing for the superiority of white people wasn't out of character for National Review. An infamous 1957 editorial -- often attributed to National Review founder William F. Buckley -- argued that the “White community” was entitled to oppose measures that sought to increase enfranchisement among southern blacks because “for the time being, it is the advanced race.” From the 1957 editorial, reprinted in New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's book, The Conscience of a Liberal: 

The central question that emerges - and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal - is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes - the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.


National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence. [National Review via Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal, pp 103-104] 

And what of the March on Washington itself? While National Review has fond words for the event fifty years after the fact, Buckley penned a column the week before the event railing against federal civil rights laws and labeling the March a “mob-deployment” and a “dangerous resort”:

There are, to be sure, times when the emotional impulses of an outraged people should indeed crystallize in massive demonstrations. But such situations are very rare indeed.

And precisely the question to ask now is whether the current controversy over the Negro question is one that clearly calls for direct mobilization.

Surely one thing is clear enough at this point in American history, namely, that the Negro problem cannot be solved by even the most artful piece of legislation. This kind of “progress” projected under the proposed civil rights laws is the kind of progress which is based on the assumption that people can be brought under coercive pressure to do things they are disciplined to do.

There are those who sincerely believe progress is not fashioned out of that kind of clay. There actually are true and wise friends of the Negro race who believe that a federal law, artificially deduced from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution or from the 14th Amendment, whose marginal effect will be to instruct small merchants in the Deep South on how they may conduct their business, is no way at all of promoting the kind of understanding which is the basis of progressive and charitable relationships between the races.

Mass demonstrations, in a free society, should be reserved for situations about which there is simply no doubting the correct moral course. If it is true that the Senate and the House of Representatives cannot be trusted to write a law which is manifestly just and imperatively moral, then and only then is the pressure of the mob in order.

But mob-deployment in circumstances that call for thought and discussion and mediation is a dangerous resort. [William F. Buckley Jr., 8/19/63, via Los Angeles Times]

National Review's coverage of King and the movement certainly wasn't all rosy after the seminal March, either. ln an editorial for National Review published in September 1965, Dr. Will Herberg pinned blame for the Watts riots on Martin Luther King and his associates. According to Herberg, King and other civil rights leaders' promotion of civil disobedience -- though done with “the best intentions” -- had nonetheless taught “hundreds of thousands of Negroes...that it is perfectly all right to break the law and defy constitute authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance.” From the 1965 editorial, as reproduced in the book, The American Spirit: U.S. History as Seen by Contemporaries, Volume II: 

Internal order is the first necessity of every society. Even justice is secondary to order, because without order there can be no society and no justice, however partial and fragmentary....


The internal order is now in jeopardy; and it is in jeopardy because of the doings of such highminded, self-righteous “children of light” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates in the leadership role of the “civil rights” movement. If you are looking for those ultimately responsible for the murder, arson, and looting in Los Angeles, look to them: they are the guilty ones, these apostles of “non-violence.”

For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes - particularly the adolescents and the children - that it is perfectly all right to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice. And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed - and, no doubt, with the best intentions - and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind. But it is not they alone who reap it, but we as well; the entire nation. [National Review via The American Spirit: U.S. History as Seen by Contemporaries, Volume II, p. 523]  

The progressive media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting has compiled some of Buckley and his magazine's other lowlights during the civil rights struggle, including:

National Review editors condemned the 1963 bombing of a black Birmingham Church that killed four children, but because it “set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically,” the editors wondered “whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur--of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro” (Chicago Reader, 8/26/05).

Just months before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, Buckley warned in his syndicated column (2/18/65) that “chaos” and “mobocratic rule” might follow if “the entire Negro population in the South were suddenly given the vote.” In his 1969 column “On Negro Inferiority” (4/8/69), Buckley heralded as “massive” and “apparently authoritative” academic racist Arthur Jensen's findings that blacks are less intelligent than whites and Asians.

As explained by FAIR, Buckley did eventually change some of his views on the civil rights movement, telling Time magazine in 2004, “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: Federal intervention was necessary.”

By 2000, the white nationalist magazine American Renaissance was lamenting “The Decline of National Review” and what it termed their “complete abandonment of the interests of whites as a group” after the magazine had spent so many years “heap[ing] criticism on the civil rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, and people like Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King, whom it considered race hustlers” and publishing “articles defending the white South and white South Africans in the days of segregation and apartheid.”

While National Review has certainly taken strides in distancing itself from its ugly history, it has had to fire two different writers for troubling racial views as recently as last year. It fired writer John Derbyshire after he published a piece in a different magazine advising parents to tell their children to be wary of black people. It also dropped contributor Robert Weissberg in light of reports that he had given a speech at an American Renaissance conference about “A Politically Viable Alternative to White Nationalism.”