On April 4, 2008, mourners gathered at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to memorialize William F. Buckley, Jr., who had died five weeks earlier. That same Friday, mourners one thousand miles away gathered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to memorialize Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been murdered there exactly 40 years before.
The coincidence resonates. Drawing on exceptional rhetorical talents without ever being elected to public office, each man transformed the terrain where mere politicians clash. Buckley and King, born less than four years apart, both attained national prominence while still in their 20s. Buckley founded National Review in 1955; its first issue appeared two weeks before Rosa Parks set in motion the Montgomery bus boycott, which turned Dr. King into the nation's preeminent black leader. Buckley and King went on to forge the conservative and civil rights movements, respectively, each of which reshaped American politics in the second half of the 20th century.
These two political movements were not, as conceived, antagonists. In its formative years the conservative movement was preoccupied with defeating international Communism and reversing the New Deal, while the civil rights movement existed to end Jim Crow. Neither objective required opposing, or even noticing, the other. The elaboration of each movement's premises, however, quickly turned them into adversaries.
On the questions where the movements confronted each other directly the simplest judgment is that King was right and Buckley was wrong. Although Buckley's personal generosity and talent for friendship resulted in warm tributes from writers on the Left, such as John Judis and James Galbraith, the first item always cited to disparage his legacy was Buckley's record during the decade between the Montgomery bus boycott and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "Buckley was not himself a bigot," Tim Noah wrote in Slate the day Buckley died, "but he was at best blind and at worst indifferent to the bigotry all around him, and there can be no question that he stood in the way of racial progress." In 2006 Noah's Slatecolleague, Daniel Gross, made the same point more heatedly:
At a time when a portion of the U.S. maintained a system of racial apartheid, Buckley and his magazine, time and time again, sided with the white supremacists. And in the decades since, I haven't seen any evidence that he and his many acolytes are sorry, or ashamed—or that they've ever engaged in anything like an honest reckoning with their intellectual complicity in segregation.
These blunt judgments are similar to the one delivered from within conservative ranks by Jonah Goldberg in 2002:
Conservatives should feel some embarrassment and shame that we are outraged at instances of racism now that it is easy to be. Conservatives...were often at best MIA on the issue of civil rights in the 1960s. Liberals were on the right side of history on the issue of race. And conservatives should probably admit that more often.
All of Buckley's writings are now available at Hillsdale College's website (www.hillsdale.edu/buckley). Through them runs the line Goldberg gently suggests, the one separating the ways conservatives avoided the campaign to end America's caste system, from the ways they impeded that campaign.