As we look around at the culture in 2010, there are conflicting signs of just how successful and just how much of a failure the civil rights movement of the 1960s has been. We have a black president, who beat a white war hero soundly both in the popular vote and the electoral college. African Americans have been Secretaries of State, four star generals and achieved many other honors and ranks undreamed of fifty years ago. Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh may brag about their clout, but Oprah Winfrey could crush them like itty bitty bugs if she put her mind to it. On the other side, blacks are still regularly lower in test scores and higher in dropout rates than other races and both the military and prisons are over-represented statistically by blacks. Some blacks have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams from fifty years ago, but there is still a long way to go for the vast majority.
Some conservatives, usually young and ignorant ones, will talk about how much of the opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 came from Democrats. They do not expect people to remember what a revolution the Democratic party in the South underwent in the late 1960s.
Here is the electoral map from 1956. Eisenhower was the biggest war hero to enter politics since Grant, and he had brought the bloody Korean conflict to an end with a quick armistice. The economy was good in 1956 and even Joe McCarthy, the Republican's most divisive figure, was becoming a dim memory. Look at the states Adlai Stevenson won. He did not win these because he was the most liberal candidate and these were the most liberal states. He won because Eisenhower the war hero had the same party affiliation as Abraham Lincoln, dead more than 90 years but still the great enemy of all things Southern. It wasn't until after his second victory in 1957 that he sent troops into Little Rock to enforce desegregation. This is just a small example of the intractability of the Southern Problem, a large region of our country who make heroes to this day out of traitors to our country and our way of life.
What is noticeable to someone my age is how much conservatives have stopped openly fighting the culture war over civil rights and now pretend they were always 100% behind equality for all citizens under the law. I remember when Muhammad Ali lit the torch at the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics. There was certainly some pity involved for his plight battling Parkinson's, but he was treated as a beloved figure, not as the cocky and divisive person he was in the the 1960s and 1970s. In this week's episode of Mad Men, the historical event playing in the background is the second fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay, who then wanted to be called Muhammad Ali. Don Draper, who for all his faults is not a racist, dislikes Clay both for the name change and for his big mouth. It was a very common opinion at the time.
But if the alleged universal love for Muhammad Ali is difficult to reconcile with the historical facts that are in my living memory, it is the theft of Martin Luther King, Jr. by modern conservatives that is much more surprising and appalling. The buffoonish huckster Glenn Beck says without apparent irony that the conservatives must "take the civil rights movement back", as though it was well off white suburbanites that made the difference in Montgomery and Selma. King was reviled as a communist on the floor of the Senate, and as recently as twenty years ago, the dead and unlamented Evan Meacham of Arizona could score political points by refusing to have a paid holiday in Martin Luther King's memory.
If some conservative wants to list the conservative victories of the last fifty years that have made a lasting impact on our culture, I'd be glad to hear them. I don't think they have a week's worth of material, especially if they aren't allowed to pull the "Reagan won the Cold War" bullshit. That would be like saying Truman won World War II. He's just the guy in office when it ends. There are plenty of liberals who were fierce Cold Warriors as well.
They've got nothing for the people. All their victories are for the corporations and moneyed interests. As I said during the Clinton years, I'd rather have a president that disappoints me than one who disgusts me. Even as I get older and hold positions more conservative than I used to hold, the definition of conservative is moving much faster to the right than I am.