Don't forget who Kilpatrick really was
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 His unpublished diatribe argued that "the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race."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.
| August 17, 2010; 12:43 PM ET
Categories: HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, history, race
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