Last week, Americans gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, which overturned the “separate, but equal” doctrine and ordered the desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed.” However, many Southern schools dragged their feet on integration, with districts steadfastly refusing to obey the court order. When federal bureaucrats tried to intervene to force desegregation, tensions grew. Summing up the situation, Senator Richard Russell, D-GA, stated in 1970, “The people of (the South) are more worked up over this problem than anything I’ve seen in all my years in politics.” Enter Richard Nixon: racial healer.
In the fall of 1968, 68 percent of black children in the South were attending all-black schools. By 1974, that number had fallen to 8 percent. This extraordinary accomplishment was achieved through the shrewd political skills and raw courage of President Nixon, Secretary of Labor George Schultz, and Attorney General John Mitchell.
In his book With Nixon, speechwriter Ray Price outlined Nixon’s school desegregation goals:
Nixon’s aim was to use the minimum coercion necessary to achieve the essential national goal, to encourage local initiative, to respect diversity, and, to the extent possible, to treat the entire nation equally – blacks equally with whites, the South equally with the North.
Vice President Spiro Agnew was chosen to chair a special Cabinet Committee on Education, the purpose of which was to find the best course of action to peacefully desegregate Southern schools in accordance with a 1969 court order. This Cabinet committee voted to create several state advisory panels, which were staffed with a diverse cross-section of leaders from each Southern state. These committees included white segregationists, black leaders, and other government officials.
Initially, there was little reason to believe that these state advisory committees would accomplish much. But Nixon pressed on. On June 24, 1970, the president met with the 15-member Mississippi State Advisory Committee in the White House. As Nixon reported in his memoirs, one of the black committee members expressed his optimism:
The day before yesterday I was in jail for going to the wrong beach. Today, Mr. President, I am meeting you. If that’s possible anything can happen.
And it did. In an incredible gesture of good faith, Mississippi Manufacturers Association president Warren Wood and Biloxi NAACP president Dr. Gilbert Mason agreed to serve as co-chairman of the Mississippi committee. According to Price, Mason christened his new relationship with Wood by saying:
If you and I can’t do this, nobody else in the state of Mississippi can. We’re probably the only black and white men in the state who can get together on something like this.
Nixon met personally with seven state advisory committees, expressing his belief that they could work together to peacefully solve one of the great crises of our time:
With each of (the committees) I stressed the same points. First, I condemned the hypocrisy in much of the North about the segregation problem. I affirmed my belief that the South should be treated with understanding and patience, but I also stressed the need to solve the problem through peaceful compliance. Second, I emphasized my commitment to the principle of local leadership to solve local problems.
During the 1960s, many liberals self-righteously screamed about racism, demanding that the federal government coerce Southerners into racial integration. The result of their heavy-handed tactics was more racial antagonism.
The president tried a different approach – cooperation. Thanks to Nixon’s strong leadership, Shultz’s masterful negotiating skills and Mitchell’s ability to keep overzealous Justice Department officials in check, the state advisory committees were an overwhelming success.
In a 1970 memo, presidential counselor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, “There has been more change in the structure of American public school education in the last month than in the past 100 years.” And, like going to China, only Nixon could have done it.
While much is made over his “Southern strategy” in 1968, few understand that the Southern strategy brought the South back into the nation’s body politic by appealing to sentiments that united all Americans: patriotism, duty, and cooperation. Nixon refused to condescend to Southerners. He treated them as Americans, equal in every way to Northerners. And because Nixon took that course, he was able to achieve one of the greatest civil rights triumphs of the 21st century: the peaceful desegregation of Southern schools.
Nixon gets almost no credit for his civil rights efforts. Thanks to the liberal press, most Americans think that Nixon’s civil rights record consists of him making a few racist statements in the Oval Office. Given the historical record, this is a tragedy.
In last week’s Brown celebrations, virtually no mentions of the former president were made. Nixon’s civil rights triumphs have been flushed down the memory hole. Moynihan summed it up in a December 1970 speech, transcribed by Price:
Since (Nixon assumed office)...the great symbol of racial subjugation, the dual school system of the South, virtually intact two years ago, has quietly and finally been dismantled. All in all, a record of good fortune and much genuine achievement. And yet how little the administration seems to be credited with what it has achieved.
If we are to honor the Supreme Court for its decision in Brown, we should also honor Richard Nixon for peacefully carrying out its historic judgment.