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Posted at 12:43 PM ET, 08/17/2010

Don't forget who Kilpatrick really was

By Peter Galuszka

James J. Kilpatrick, the pro-segregation editorial page editor of the defunct Richmond News Leader and 1970s "60 Minutes" news celebrity, is being celebrated nationwide after his death this week.

But let's not forget who he was.

During his years as editorial page editor of the News Leader, up to 1966, Kilpatrick, an Oklahoman, thundered away at court-ordered integration, supported the "massive resistance" program created by Virginia's white ruling elite, and later revised his views as he was on popular national television shows that have been cleverly lampooned by "Saturday Night Live."

This morning's Richmond Times-Dispatch treats the death of Kilpatrick as the passing of a brilliant man or head of state. Using a black-and-white motif to reflect the iconic black-and-white-era photos of Kilpatrick wearing his iconic black-and-white plastic eyeglasses, the TD editorial page waxes eloquent about how he was a bright, good guy who mistakenly went down the wrong ideological (at least in today's view) path and after washing away his sins in the creek waters of modernity and tolerance, emerged as a gentleman farmer in Rappahannock County.

As the TD's lead editorial says: "James J. Kilpatrick's pen blazed. He wrote with style and power; his prose stoked social and political fires. If he had not employed his considerable talents on a malevolent cause, he would have won a Pulitzer Prize."

No matter how much the TD wants to reinvent history, the fact is that Kilpatrick was an out-and-out racist who did much to damage this country during a period of critically important and inevitable change.

He gave this campaign a supposedly intellectual flair by coming up with such arguments as "interposition," a states' rights ploy that would let state officials ignore federal laws they don't like. For a modern-day comparison, look what hard-right Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is attempting with health-care reform. He's saying that Congress doesn't have the power to change the current, unworkable and unfair system of health care because it tramples on states' rights.

As far as Kilpatrick goes, let's not forget that as late as 1963 he was penning articles for the Saturday Evening Post titled: "The Hell He Is Equal." His unpublished diatribe argued that "the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race."

Somehow the Times Dispatch left that one out of its fawning editorial and obituary. Back in the day, the TD did have a somewhat enlightened editor, Virginius Dabney, who had a great gift of gab. Unfortunately, Dabney, who disapproved of massive resistance, did not have the intestinal fortitude to go against the Bryan family that still owns the newspaper. When the Bryan-in-chief wanted an editorial supporting segregation, Dabney said, "Yessir" and turned the writing job over to one of the TD's advertising hacks, according to the highly acclaimed book "The Race Beat" on the Southern media during the civil rights era.

Now if you want to see a Virginian editor who had the brains and guts to fight massive resistance, look at Lenoir Chambers, editor of The Virginian-Pilot, who won the Pulitzer the TD says that Kilpatrick could have won back in 1960. One of Chambers' prize-winning editorials stated:

"More intelligent handling of problems of great difficulty will continue and increase only if commonsense and courage continue to direct the course of both political leadership and public opinion. The struggles for reasonable solutions are not over. The state may see setbacks of serious proportions. It is certain to encounter perplexities not easy to resolve. It may discover demagogues entranced with the thought of exploiting honest doubts and uncertainties as well as old prejudices. It needs sensible cooperation from its Negro citizenship. It needs every ounce of good will it can find from any source."

Now that is about as far away from "The Hell He Is Equal" as one can possibly get. But Chambers, who died in 1970, never got the "60 Minutes" buzz that Kilpatrick did.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon's Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Peter Galuszka  | August 17, 2010; 12:43 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, history, race  
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Thanks for that excellent piece, Peter. I analyze Kilpatrick's substantial influence on the rise of the right - particularly its fusion of racial resentment and economic conservatism in my book "From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism" (Yale University Press 2008). In considering Kilpatrick's role in late 20th century politics, it isn't that white supremacy marred his conservative principles. Indeed, they cannot be separated, either for him or for the modern conservative movement. National Review also chose not to print his racist tracts, seeking to keep its defense of segregation tidily on what Kilpatrick himself called "the higher ground" of state sovereignty. In a racially stratified society that has all but given up on desegregation today, we still live partly in Kilpatrick's shadow. Whitewashing his commitments to white supremacy only helps keep us there.

Posted by: jelowndes | August 17, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Should men be condemned for all eternity for views held in their place in time? Should we choose to accept that standard we must consider tumbling Jefferson's memorial into the Tidal Basin because of his view that "The two races equally free cannot live under the same government, nature, habit and opinion has drawn clear lines of distinction between them". Shall we then move over to the Mall and dump Lincoln into the Reflecting Pool as his views on the Negro were certainly politically incorrect? A good definition of hubris is to make judgmental assumptions on the lives of those passed based on the certainty that those living today are in possession of ultimate truth.

Posted by: slim2 | August 17, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Washington is a city filled with monuments and memorials to slave owners; a city that gave honor to former Klansmen, one of whom recently died (and was hailed by this very paper); however, it is one that can leave that to the past - unlike the writer of this opinion. Perhaps we should tear down these monuments as well? How ironic: we vote for change, but continue to dwell in the past.

Posted by: CubsFan | August 18, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Kilpatrick,a relic ,
bigoted and destructive to the end,
Not a nation builder or a healer,
Not at all like any of the founding fathers,
The founding fathers knew right form wrong, and some of them voiced wishes for positive changes.
Kilpatrick, wrote of wishes to regress,
to return to the days of,power for white male Angolo-Saxons and only them,
Kilpatrick has more in common with Hitler

Posted by: 10bestfan | August 18, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Peter Galuszka – HOW DARE YOU use the opportunity of Jack Kilpatrick’s death to brand him a racist. HOW DARE YOU! Waiting until he was dead and silent, you cherry-picked from a half-century body of his work to find what you deem as his most reprehensible remarks (from 47 years ago), hang it around his neck before he is even in the ground, and then fail to underscore how he repeatedly expressed regret about these views later in his life. He told Time magazine in 1970, “Very few of us, I suspect, would like to have our passions and profundities at age 28 thrust in our faces at 50.” Yet here you are, Mr. Galuszka, doing just that to a man who has died at age 89.

No blogger he, Jack Kilpatrick was the real thing – reporter, newspaper editor, syndicated columnist and author of fiction and non-fiction books, but he referred to himself as “newsman.” He had opinions and advanced them when possible, just as others with differing opinions advanced theirs. When he changed his mind – as many in the wrong today do not – Jack let it be known. He repeatedly characterized views on segregation as “evil.”

Just as he was judged by his words and actions, he believed that all individual men should be judged by theirs, as evidenced by his reporting on Silas Rogers, a wrongfully-accused black man who was exonerated in part by Kilpatrick’s reporting, and for which Kilpatrick was commended in 1953 by a black-owned newspaper in Richmond, VA. This is the same man who you define as racist!?

He wrote a great truth that is embraced today by all who shun “political correctness” and squishy, meaningless words. He wrote, “Conservatives believe that a civilized society demands orders and classes, that men are not inherently equal, that change and reform are not identical, that in a free society men are children of God and not wards of the state.”

A racist, indeed. I hope that you are judged by the same standard.

Posted by: tomokc | August 18, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Kilpo will go down in history as one of the great authorities on the Supreme Court and language. His book "The Writer's Art" is a classic for anyone who considers themselves a journalist or author. His breadth of knowledge was staggering.

My Grandfather hired Jack at the Richmond News Leader fresh out of Missouri journalism school. Kilpo's beat was everything. He knew the police blotters and court dockets. He, along with my Grandfather, co-wrote for Reader's Digest an article promoting volunteer emergency response units. The idea spread across the country.

Believe it or not, he was best when he wrote with humor and he was often funny.

As for his views on race relations, Kilpo was great friends with fellow commentator Carl Rowen. Their disagreements were classics on the TV show Agronski & Company.

I hope this helps put the work of a staggering journalist in better perspective. He deserves it.

Posted by: jayhoopz | August 18, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

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