Richard M. Nixon, Southern Strategies, and Desegregation of Public Schools
ALVY L. KING
A presidential candidate, in his successful 1968 campaign, said that "America's in trouble today, not because her people have failed but because her leaders have failed." In August 1974 a writer in a popular black magazine recalled this statement by Richard M. Nixon when he resigned from the presidency because aspects of his leadership had been called into question. 1 Equal rights advocates could enjoy the irony of Nixon's "chickens coming home to roost." His lack of constructive executive leadership was notable with regard to federal court decisions calling for equal educational opportunities (i.e., desegregation). This paper examines the Nixon Administration's public school desegregation policy, particularly what has been called Nixon's Southern Strategy.
Political strategies involving concessions in the interests of politically powerful groups in the South were, even then, not new. Almost a century earlier, in return for support from white southern leaders, President Rutherford B. Hayes promised that his administration would not enforce the recently won civil rights of black Americans. Commonly referred to as the Compromise of 1877, this stratagem marked the end of Reconstruction, the end of federal political and military efforts to force southern state governments to give more nearly equal rights to ex-slaves and other blacks. If there is such a thing as a "national conscience," it was perhaps ready to forget, after little more than a decade, the catastrophic Civil War that had ended slavery and to be content with just that--the end of slavery.
There are interesting parallels, maybe even instructive parallels, in the 1860s and 1870s when compared to the 1960s and 1970s. In both eras, the respective Republican administrations gained votes by capitalizing on prevailing social, racial, economic, and political upheavals of their times. The polarization of issues and adversaries was perhaps at least as clear cut in the 1960s as it had been in the 1860s. There were many in either decade who did not take a stand one way or the other. And in each era, as in most, the sorting of higher-order from lower-order motivation was often complicated.