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.

From his earliest days in the newspaper business, his talent shone. No wonder he'd been tapped as chief editorial writer by the sainted Douglas Southall Freeman, the legendary biographer of General Lee, when Mr. Freeman retired as editor of the News Leader in 1949.

Editor Kilpatrick's dedication to his craft, his way with words and abiding interest in them, made him a natural editor. His strong sense of individual justice marked him as a man of conscience; at one point his editorials and personal appeals persuaded the governor of his state to pardon a black handyman who was serving a life sentence after being falsely convicted of killing a police officer. In tribute to that display of courage, a black newspaper would put him on its honor roll of leaders. But that was the year before Brown v. Board of Education was handed down; the newspaper would have reason to rethink its opinion of him later.

Kilpo's sense of humor, and general playfulness, came out when he created the Beadle Bumble Fund to defend innocents caught up in some lunacy of the law. It was named after the character in Dickens' "Oliver Twist" who famously exclaims, "If the law supposes that, the law is a ass -- a idiot."

The Bumble fund, as Kilpo would explain, was dedicated to "poking fun and spoofing the hell out of despots on the bench." And it served its purpose well, for there is no more potent weapon in the editorial writer's arsenal than ridicule, at least when delivered with wit and savor.

Language, Mr. Kilpatrick took seriously, but never solemnly. He regularly waged war on pretentious prose and the solemn asses who commit it. His "The Writer's Art," first published in 1984, came complete with a typically incisive foreword by the late great William F. Buckley Jr. His columns on language put other linguistic mavens in the shade, including William Safire, who called those columns classics of style. When he wasn't delving into law, language, politics, or country ways (he regularly took refuge in his cabin in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains), Brother Kilpatrick was churning out a widely syndicated newspaper column.

This was no one-dimensional racist but a man in full, single flaw and all, even if that one flaw would determine his place in history forever. Ruthless judge, Clio, muse of history. She may judge each of us not on the basis of our, oh, so well-rounded character, but only on how we respond to the one great moral test of our time.

It was hard to believe that so well educated and multitalented a man as Jack Kilpatrick could be a seg, and not only a seg but also the intellectual leader of segdom in his ill-starred time. There wasn't a brand of legal, historical or anthropological buncombe he didn't buy wholesale and then retail in its service. It hurt to watch so intelligent a rhetorician selling so dubious a line of goods -- sincerely. That was the hell of it.

At one disgraceful point -- 1963, which was not a happy year for obedience to either law or conscience -- Editor Kilpatrick submitted an article and textbook specimen of negrophobia to the Saturday Evening Post that he proposed to call, "The Hell He is Equal." Its elevated thesis: that "the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race."

The article hit the desk of the Post's editor at the time, Thomas B. Congdon Jr., just after four little black girls had been killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. Mr. Congdon decided not to run it on the unimpeachable grounds that it was in "bad taste," not to say bad judgment, and inflammatory to boot. There may not have been giants in the earth in those days, but at least there were still editors. Which is how Kilpo was saved from the worst of his excesses.

Eventually, about a decade too late, even Mr. Kilpatrick caught on to himself, and decided he'd been wrong about race and racial integration after all. But he didn't do it with either the intellectual clarity or decisiveness William F. Buckley Jr. would show when he washed his hands for good of all those apologias for Southern racism his National Review had once carried.

Alas, Jack Kilpatrick had no blinding-light experience on the road to Damascus; he didn't so much renounce his earlier views as gradually distance his older, distinguished self from them. It was as if, having forgotten who he had once been, the rest of us were expected to forget, too. Just to be polite.

At one point Mr. Kilpatrick would look back and blame all those atrocious ideas he once trumpeted on having grown up as a white boy in Oklahoma City. As if the elaborate arguments he'd made so forcefully and prominently for so long in so bad a cause had been the result of an accident of birth, and he himself bore no real responsibility for them. His home town -- indeed, his own race -- deserved better of him than that. So did we all.

Despite his finally having drifted away from his earlier views, his role as racial segregation's great champion would always mark him, like J. William Fulbright's indelible signature on the Southern Manifesto. There is something about an intellectual's taking up a know-nothing cause that forever sticks in the mind, and craw. Which is why, on hearing of Jack Kilpatrick's death at 89, some of us could only sigh. And mourn.


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.