Book review: James J. Kilpatrick’s journey from segregationist to celebrity

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 22, 2013 

  • Nonfiction James J. Kilpatrick, Salesman for Segregation William P. Hustwit

    UNC Press, 352 pages

My one brush with journalist James J. Kilpatrick came in the early 1980s, when the guard at the Senate Press Gallery, recognizing me, smiled and waved me through. Following close behind was Kilpatrick, who the guard demanded produce some form of ID.

“New man, new man,” grumped Kilpatrick to his young companion.

Few people didn’t recognize Kilpatrick in the 1980s. His column appeared in about 170 newspapers. He was a fixture on television, becoming a celebrity journalist as the conservative commentator on the popular CBS “60 Minutes” point-counterpoint debates.

But that is not how Kilpatrick got his start, as William P. Hustwit points out in his engrossing new biography, “James J. Kilpatrick, Salesman for Segregation.” It was as the ardent voice of segregation, from his pulpit as editor of the editorial page of the Richmond News Leader, that Kilpatrick came into national prominence.

While most North Carolina newspapers, including The News & Observer led by Jonathan Daniels, took a moderate stance when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation in 1954, Kilpatrick emerged, as Hustwit puts it, as “one of the loudest voices of intransigence toward civil rights reform and a budding star in the segregationist South and the conservative intellectual movement.”

Kilpatrick dusted off John C. Calhoun’s theory of interposition, asserting that a state could “interpose” its authority between the people and the central state if the federal government stripped an individual state of its power. This idea gained wide circulation in the South in the 1950s, although Kilpatrick would acknowledge privately that it was more delaying tactic against school integration than solid legal theory.

Although Kilpatrick would later seek to soft-pedal his beginnings as a segregationist, it gave him a national platform, elevating a regional editor into a national figure. He debated, and bested, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., garnered speaking engagements across the country, and caught the eye of national conservative leaders, eventually writing for national publications such as William F. Buckley’s National Review.

Syndication of his column and national TV appearances would follow. He would be immortalized in pop culture on a “Saturday Night Live” skit, where he traded barbs with liberal Shana Alexander. (“Jane, you ignorant slut!” says the Kilpatrick character in a line often repeated at the time.)

An Oklahoma native, Kilpatrick moved from Richmond to spend his last few decades in Washington, D.C. He also wrote from a Virginia farmhouse outside Washington, which he gave the fictional name Scrabble.

Kilpatrick was a gifted writer, a skilled TV communicator and a clubbable man who was liked by most of his colleagues. He was born in Oklahoma in 1920, and his views on race were fixed in a time and place. He never seemed to shake his sense of black inferiority.

Hustwit, a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi, has done a first-rate job of providing a much-needed biography of one of the South’s most important journalists of the 20th century.

Hustwit is particularly strong in writing about Kilpatrick’s role in leading the fight against integration. I wish he had written a little more about Kilpatrick’s personal life. There is no mention of the death of first wife or his marriage to his second wife, columnist Marianne Means, or even his own death in August 2010.

In the end, Hustwit believes, Kilpatrick, in transforming himself from Virginia segregationist to national conservative, helped “restructure traditional southern views for more mainstream consumption.’’

Rob Christensen is the author of “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.” Reach him at 919-829-4532.

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