The Politics of Principle: Richard Nixon and School Desegregation

Article excerpt

In many ways Richard Nixon chose a terrible time to be President. He followed an Administration which comprehensively safeguarded civil rights and financed education. Through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the country's leaders finally responded to the public's demand for equality of opportunity in school and society. Yet by 1968 the leaders were not meeting the extraordinary expectations raised by such legislation, and they were losing the public's trust. Nixon's challenge was therefore to realistically adjust his expectations without dangerously abdicating his leadership. If he succeeded, he could help accelerate the considerable progress which the country was making in race relations and educational achievement. If he failed, he might help alienate a generation of Americans from their leaders.

Some scholars claim that Nixon succeeded, by leading a principled assault on de jure school desegregation. Others claim that he failed, by orchestrating a politically expedient surrender to de facto school segregation. A close examination of the evidence, however, reveals that in the area of school desegregation, Nixon's record was a mixture of principle and politics, progress and paralysis, success and failure. In the end, he was neither simply the cowardly architect of a racially insensitive "Southern strategy" which condoned segregation, nor the courageous conductor of a politically risky "not-so-Southern strategy" which condemned it. Because of his ambivalent past and his country's ambivalent present on civil rights, President Richard Nixon was both.

School Desegregation

In 1954, while Richard Nixon was Vice President, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that de jure segregation violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The next year, the Court ordered the dismantling of such segregation "with all deliberate speed," leaving implementation to lower court judges. On the tenth anniversary of the Brown decision, however, only one percent of African-American children in the South attended desegregated schools, so the Civil Rights Act of 1964 moved to enforce the Brown decision. Title IV of the Act empowered the Justice Department to litigate school desegregation cases, while Title VI permitted the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to withdraw federal money from segregated schools. By 1968, due partly because of the Civil Rights Act, the fraction of African-American children in desegregated Southern schools had increased to ten percent.(1)

In the same year, while Richard Nixon was a Presidential candidate, the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. New Kent County that "freedom of choice" voluntary desegregation plans which did not produce significant racial mixing violated the Equal Protection clause. For the next three years, on the important questions of "whether a school system must achieve a particular racial balance in order to satisfy constitutional standards and the extent to which a school board must reassign students to distant schools in order to overcome segregated residential patterns," the High Court would remain silent. But new President Richard Nixon would not.(2)

The "Southern Strategy"

Writing in National Review in 1964, William Rusher argued that the "Republican Party is poised to shatter the Democrats' century-old grip on the 'Solid South'." Of the six states which Republican Barry Goldwater carried in his landslide defeat by Lyndon Johnson that year, five were in the Deep South. Four years later, Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips expanded upon the Rusher thesis. "[Southern] white Democrats will desert their party in droves," said Phillips, "the minute it becomes a black party." After Nixon divided the Southern electoral vote with independent George Wallace in 1968, Phillips predicted, "We'll get two-thirds to three-fourths of the Wallace vote in nineteen seventy-two. …