Paul Greenberg

James Jackson Kilpatrick was always a welcome and, to some of us, awe-inspiring sight whenever he would show up at the editorial writers' convention. Yes, editorial writers have conventions, too, though our annual confab is more of an anarchists' assembly. When you spotted him there, it was as if history had just walked in the door, for he'd played so prominent a role in it -- at least if you were a Southerner who'd gone through the second Reconstruction, aka the civil rights revolution. Jack Kilpatrick's starring role, unfortunately, was on the wrong side.

He was called Kilpo for short -- affectionately, admiringly, and sometimes with a small, sad sigh that betrayed something more than sympathy -- something, dare I say, akin to pity. For he was a monumental figure in the newspaper trade, at least in these latitudes, and no matter what else he had done or would do, he would always carry the taint of the Bad Old Days wherever he went. Those were the days when segism was in flower, demagogues stalked the land, and racial hatred was always just under the surface of the news, and all too often broke through. (See Little Rock, 1957.)

Sad times they were, if exhilarating ones for the kind of youngbloods who loved a good fight, and James Jackson Kilpatrick of the Richmond News Leader had been an unforgettable part of them. His was the eloquent, erudite voice that would lend an aura of respectability to some of that era's worst impulses. He would use his considerable gifts to wrap some of the most dubious constitutional doctrines that ever came down the pike -- Massive Resistance, Interposition, Nullification -- in the gauzy layers of elevated rhetoric that ugly ideas require if they are to be made presentable.

Jack Kilpatrick put his God-given talent at the service of a now lost cause that richly deserved to lose. Much as that profound thinker, John C. Calhoun, would serve as slavery's intellectual in American history. Mr. Kilpatrick would do the same for Jim Crow in its hour of need, which explains why some of us could only sigh at the sight of him. So rich a talent, so poor a cause.

It's no secret that racism has been the bane of Southern politics. Every ambitious demagogue relied on it when out to win lifetime tenure in public office. (Here in Arkansas it was Orval Faubus.) But it wasn't just the South's political life that the race issue plagued, but our culture in general, ensnaring some of our best and brightest -- like this gentleman and scholar pounding out editorials in Richmond.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.