Here’s an excerpt from an article on the Sixties of mine in THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW . It supports the Tocquevillian thought that things are mainly getting better and worse, as well as the thought that the aggressive nationalizing of the civil rights movement was in response to a state and local failure of self-government:

If memory serves, the only real political issue that inspired passion in the early Sixties was civil rights—meaning desegregation. The first and only political event I remember attending (with my parents, of course) in the early Sixties was a very classy picnic at the Alexandria, Virginia estate of a very devout Episcopalian gentleman-lawyer from an old Southern family. This man, Armistead Boothe, was widely admired as the heroic leader of those who opposed “massive resistance” to desegregation in the Virginia legislature. Running for lieutenant governor, he was narrowly defeated by the “Byrd Machine” candidate.

To us, the Byrd Machine seemed to be a corrupt alliance of business interests and segregationist fanatics. Opposition to it seemed noble, even aristocratic, a cause worthy of a dignified Christian gentleman. If Virginia didn’t slowly desegregate on its own, Boothe warned, the national government and its courts would eventually make them do it in a ham-fisted way. The Sixties’ “second Reconstruction” of the South was, in fact, caused by a Southern failure of self-government. It could have been avoided had astute gentleman like Boothe prevailed over demagogic populists—such as the George Wallace of the Sixties.

Maybe the worst feature of the Sixties as a whole was the pointless violence. One persistent piece of evidence of the basic health of American society, even during the Sixties, is that the violence always aroused the politically effective anger of a silent majority. That was true of what happened on our campuses, in our cities, and at the 1968 Democratic convention. But it was first true about the segregationist violence in the South, especially in 1963. Until 1963, the truth is, the nonviolent “direct action” of the civil rights movement had not had much effect. But by mid-1964, Americans, tutored by newly-expanded TV nightly news, were convinced that something had to be done to end southern lawlessness. That was the year, of course, that Congress finally passed civil rights legislation with real teeth, and the Democratic president who pushed it through won a huge victory over the Republican candidate who opposed it (and who only carried states in the Deep South). All Americans, as our Constitution has always intended, were finally recognized as free, equal, dignified, and politically participating citizens.

The second Reconstruction was, of course, not only good for justice, but for prosperity, in the South. Air-conditioning and integration combined to produce the Sunbelt—the most “livable,” entrepreneurial, and Republican part of our country. The Sixties’ transformation of the South, like almost all social change, was both good and bad. What was left of agrarianism and localism and the distinctively southern or aristocratic criticism of the excesses of American commercialism atrophied, and men like Boothe are virtually extinct. There are certainly good reasons to be repulsed by the wasteland of the McMansions, megachurches, and superstores that flourishes better than anywhere else in southern suburbs, even while admitting that the South—even more now than then—remains the most genuinely religious and patriotic part of our country

The first and least controversial of the liberation movements of the Sixties was good for both justice and business broadly understood, but in some ways not so good for love, for community, for enduring personal significance.

Now let me add something to the article: The most edifying and popular movie I remember from around the same time was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The small southern town was full of memorable places and people, but also with a redneck racism—based on a grinding poverty—that wasn’t resisted by those who ran the place. Atticus, the father/lawyer, was as noble a Stoic as there’s ever been, and he courageously stood up for the natural aristocrat’s understanding of justice and basic decency. But justice wasn’t served in the local court, and poor Atticus spent plenty of time alone with his books, with no one to talk to.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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