Whitewashing history

Whitewashing history

Local conservative group sanitizes a defender of racist politics

Looking for a reason (other than a bottomless pile of corporate money) that conservatives so often seem to be on the offensive in modern American policy debates?  Here’s a big one: The scale of their ambition.

While progressive nonprofits and politicos worry about polling and focus groups and fine tuning their “messaging” in order to try and appeal to 50.1% of the electorate in hopes of passing the next watered down version of a middle-of-the-road policy proposal, their adversaries on the right worry about how, literally, to overhaul American society.

While progressives worry about how to survive the next election and/or blunt a new round of attacks on public structures and services, the right thinks about how radically different it wants things in North Carolina to look in 20, 30 or 50 years.

If you think this is an exaggeration, consider the breadth and scope of the ambition of one of North Carolina’s most visible right-wing think tanks.

As noted in this space a few years’ back, the John Locke Foundation doesn’t limit its reports and commentary to modern policy debates. The group spends a lot of time on the past too. It even goes so far as to employ a person with actual academic credentials to lead something it calls the “North Carolina History Project.” Add to this the group’s fondness for reenactments and their “President and Chairman” John Hood’s devotion to holding forth on historical events – especially when it involves celebrating old, penny-pinching, white men – and one can readily see that the group aspires to do more than just win some battles in modern state government.

Hood himself confirmed these aspirations in a speech to the Mecklenburg County Young Republicans this week when he told the group that he seeks to create “an infrastructure” that will, over time, fundamentally alter the state:

“That’s what we do at the Locke Foundation – not just put some ideas on the table, not just explain those ideas to people – but to create an infrastructure that makes those ideas succeed and stick….You have to have institutions outside of politics that continue the movement and make sure people stay on the straight and narrow”

Looking backwards  

What this means as a practical matter is that the Locke group works not only to convince average people that their conservative ideas are right, but that they are somehow consistent with decades (or centuries) of supposedly high, intellectual thought. From tax policy and the role of government to education and health care, the Lockers are almost ready with a story about an old man in knickers and a wig who preached about self-sufficiency and the evils of government.

Sometimes, however, the stories stem from somewhat more recent history. In Hood’s “nonpartisan” speech to the Young Republicans, he only had to turn the clock back 75 years to unearth a politician to celebrate – in this case a conservative U.S. Senator from North Carolina named Josiah Bailey.

Bailey, it turns out, was a Democrat who nonetheless became an arch-enemy of the New Deal. In 1937 he attempted to foment a mutiny of sorts against President Roosevelt and penned a ten-point “conservative manifesto” that, even today, makes right-wing hearts soar. His efforts helped lay the groundwork for a coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats in Congress that was active in stymieing progressive policy proposals for decades.

In his Charlotte talk, Hood lauded Bailey as exemplary of the kind of “courage” necessary to stand up to the supposed attacks on America’s “traditional liberty principles” and drew parallels between Bailey’s efforts and the modern “tea party” movement.

That he would do so makes some sense given that the N.C. History Project has featured a fairly glowing profile of Bailey for the last few years in which, in addition to holding up his battles with FDR, it describes him as a “a leading figure in North Carolina’s progressive movement” and a  “reform minded advocate.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, however, there was another side to Bailey that neither Hood nor the History Project chose to mention: He was a racist and a hater.

Here’s Bailey speaking on the U.S. Senate floor as he and fellow southern senators filibustered a bill that sought to make lynching a federal crime:

“this is a cause worth dying for. It is a battle worth fighting if it takes until Congress begins its next session in January 1936.…We’ll speak day and night if necessary.”

And here’s Bailey speaking on the future of southern conservatism as quoted in the book Roosevelt’s Purge by author Susan Dunn:

“We intend, and I think I speak for every Southern state, to keep the negroes out of our party. Should the Democratic Party fail to take this course, you may be assured that a white man’s party would arise in the South.”

Quite a hero, huh?

Reality check

Of course, none of this is to accuse the Locke people of endorsing Bailey’s noxious racism. It’s undoubtedly the case that many figures in American history who accomplished many good things were also guilty of a brand of racism that was accepted in their time (at least in some circles) and that is considered patently abhorrent today – from Washington and Jefferson to Lincoln to LBJ. FDR himself – a hero on so many critical issues – approved the forced internment of Japanese Americans during the war and often failed to lead as strongly as he could have on civil rights issues.

What’s missing from the Locke narrative, however, is an acknowledgement of this kind regarding Bailey – the kind that one would find in good and honest historical accounts. As a general proposition, there’s nothing wrong per se with praising flawed figures from the past for specific stands they took, but to broadly lionize a person when he also spoke so forcefully, publicly and frequently in support of evil and then not even to mention those despicable acts constitutes a brand of whitewashing that really needs to be called out.

And in Bailey’s case, we’re not talking about some backbencher who went along passively with the status quo or who simply lacked the courage to stand up and fight for justice; we’re talking about a blunt and prolific spokesperson for hate that was strongly criticized in his own time for those acts.

What’s more, the prediction Bailey made about the establishment of a southern white man’s party (a prediction that LBJ famously echoed in a resigned way after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964) has essentially come true; with very few exceptions, the dominant modern American conservative party – especially in the south — is a white person’s party.

Given such a reality, one might think that the Locke people would display at least a small measure of humility – even sheepishness – at praising such a person so unreservedly. Unfortunately, whether as a result of cockiness or obliviousness, the idea seems never to have occurred to them.

And given the group’s admitted desire – indeed, its aggressive and well–funded plan – to literally, remake our public culture (from our politics and economics right down through our history books) this is a development that ought to cause caring and thinking people to stand up and take notice.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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