"Honest" conversations about race and the cynical ends to which they're habitually put

One of history’s little ironies is that the great congressional enemy of anti-lynching laws was none other than Lyndon Baines Johnson, remembered today mainly as a civil-rights hero. To believe that Johnson was transformed in the course of a few short years (well into his maturity) from a man who spent a great deal of time gutting and hobbling Republican-backed civil-rights legislation to a champion of civil rights as the result of a moral awakening rather than as a consequence of crude political calculation (calculation was Johnson’s greatest skill) requires something more than extending the benefit of the doubt — something more like willful suspension of disbelief. To keep alive the memory of the actual record of the Democratic party and the progressive movement on the matter of race — it is a dreadful record — is not merely an opportunity to point at today’s Democrats and remind them of their party’s ugly history. It is necessary to understanding all that obsessive racial stuff in the New York Times and everywhere else.

The great error of conservatives and Republicans (the two are not synonymous) on the matter of race is in their burning desire to come to a stopping point, to close the book and declare the question finally settled. After the Civil War, they argued that the sins of the nation had been washed away in the blood of Gettysburg. The same feeling followed the passage of the 14th Amendment: “We’re done now, right?” The same thing accompanied the civil-rights advances of the Eisenhower years. Eisenhower signed a civil-rights law, and, though he had mixed feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, he sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock to enforce the law. The man who organized D-Day landed troops in the segregated South to enforce desegregation: Surely, many thought, we have now done our part.

Other measures followed, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed by many of the editors of this magazine and famously by their electoral champion that year, Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, a founding member of the Arizona NAACP who had funded out of his own pocket the lawsuit that desegregated the public schools in Phoenix, who had been a friend and patron to civil-rights leaders and who had in both the private sector (his family’s business) and the public sector (the Arizona air wing) worked tirelessly and effectively for desegregation, was a conservative who thought — perhaps wrongly, certainly with an eye to political self-interest, but with no indication at all of malice — that we had done enough, that the sweeping powers with which the 1964 law invested the federal government did violence to the constitutional order and would effectively lift all limits on the federal government’s reach, that we’d done what needed doing back in 1957.