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James J. Kilpatrick, 89

James J. Kilpatrick, 89, dies; conservative columnist formerly on '60 Minutes'

In this April 1, 1965 black-and-white file photo, then-Richmond News Leader editor James J. Kilpatrick, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this April 1, 1965 black-and-white file photo, then-Richmond News Leader editor James J. Kilpatrick, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Henry Griffin - AP)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

James J. Kilpatrick, 89, a fiery advocate of racial segregation as a Richmond newspaper editor in the 1950s who became a sparring partner of liberals on the television show "60 Minutes" and a syndicated columnist who offered conservative views on subjects ranging from politics to the proper use of English, died Aug. 15 at George Washington University Hospital. He had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Kilpatrick, who gradually distanced himself from his writings on race, became one of the most popular and eminent conservative writers of his generation.

His prose blended the erudite and the homespun, and he became one of the few conservatives syndicated in print nationally in the early 1960s. His column "A Conservative View" ran in hundreds of newspapers for nearly 30 years and initially predated the television presence of William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the conservative National Review magazine.

"Before there was a Bill Buckley, before there was a Ronald Reagan or Rush Limbaugh, there was James Jackson Kilpatrick explaining public-policy issues from a conservative perspective," said Richard Viguerie, a conservative youth group leader in the early 1960s who became a direct-mail pioneer for conservative political candidates.

Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said Mr. Kilpatrick's accomplishments will always be overshadowed by the major role he played as top editor of the Richmond News Leader.

At the now-defunct paper, Mr. Kilpatrick wrote editorials that thundered support for "massive resistance" to race-mixing in public schools, an effort pushed by the political machine of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. that worked to shut down public schools rather than integrate them.

"It was one of the saddest episodes in Virginia's long history, and it helped to keep the state a backwater for years to come," Sabato said.

Mr. Kilpatrick rose to national prominence at the Richmond paper. In books, essays and editorials, he was known for clothing segregationist doctrine in the terms of constitutional argument.

For example, he gave new life to the idea of interposition championed by antebellum Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who argued that states could protect their citizens from the authority of the federal government. Many Southern states began to pass pro-segregation laws that adopted the interposition language promoted by Mr. Kilpatrick.

One of Mr. Kilpatrick's most strident essays on civil rights, "The Hell He Is Equal," was scheduled for publication in the Saturday Evening Post in late 1963. But editors pulled the essay because of the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that September, which claimed the lives of four black girls during services at the church, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in "The Race Beat" (2006), their Pulitzer Prize-winning book about journalism in the civil rights era.

"Kilpatrick, by propagating a whole vernacular to serve the culture of massive resistance -- interposition, nullification, states' rights, state sovereignty -- provided an intellectual shield for nearly every racist action and reaction in the coming years," Roberts and Klibanoff wrote.

Mr. Kilpatrick told a Roanoke newspaper in 1993 that he had intended merely to delay court-mandated integration because "violence was right under the city waiting to break loose. Probably, looking back, I should have had better consciousness of the immorality, the absolute evil of segregation."


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