Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Claude Kirk's politics of confrontation

Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, became the focus of national attention in spring 1970 when, in defiance of a court order, he suspended the entire Manatee County school board and appointed himself school superintendent. 'Not since George Wallace’s "stand in the schoolhouse door" in 1963', the New York Times noted, 'had a Southern Governor used his office in open defiance of the law'. Kirk argued that a single judicial standard on school desegregation should be applied consistently both within and outside the South, an argument which Southern segregationists used against federal policies that they felt were unduly critical of the South and ignored so-called de facto segregation in other regions. Kirk’s defiance echoed complaints from other Southern leaders, but unlike most legal and legislative arguments, Kirk’s organized his anti-busing opposition to garner the maximum media attention. For example, he delivered a speech condemning busing from a maternity ward following the birth of his second child, 'surrounded by blushing nurses, gurgling babies and television cameras'. These stunts vexed the Nixon administration, which moved cautiously to enforce school desegregation orders in the South, while also trying to broaden the Republican Party’s electoral appeal to white Southerners. The administration’s carefully worded opposition to busing drew a sharp distinction between de jure (legal) segregation and de facto segregation, which they understood to be a product of market forces and private decisions that government had no legal responsibility to address. In practice, the Nixon administration oversaw desegregation gains among Southern school districts that maintained dual systems, but did not use the power of the federal government to tackle the deeply entrenched segregation that resulted from state and federal housing policies and school zoning policies in the South or other regions. Kirk’s ongoing busing battle in Florida was close at hand when Nixon issued his first major statement on school busing in March 1970, endorsing the 'neighbourhood school', criticizing 'massive busing' and arguing that the 'The law [on de jure school segregation] should be applied equally, North and South, East and West'. Like Nixon’s appeal to citizens and viewers, 'North and South, East and West', Kirk’s protests and the television coverage he garnered helped propel busing for school desegregation into an issue that resonated nationally. 

From his first days as governor, Kirk sought and received national attention. He averaged ten out-of-state appearances each month in 1967 and continued to travel extensively during his termKirk’s national ambitions were supported by William Safire, a New York-based public relations executive, who served as Kirk’s special political consultant (Safire also worked as a speech writer for Nixon and Agnew). Journalist David Halberstam, in one of several Kirk profiles in national magazines and newspapers, described Safire’s role: 'For $90,000 a year, he promotes Florida as well as Kirk, producing a salable substance on the national market and in the action-hungry televised politics of the 1960s.' Much of this national travel and promotion was in the service of Kirk’s ill-fated campaign for the vice presidential nomination in the 1968 election. Kirk billed himself as a Southern governor who could successfully prevent George Wallace’s third-party campaign from hurting the Republicans in the presidential electionWhile this vice presidential gambit backfired – Kirk’s endorsement of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller put him at odds with the Nixon administration and much of the Republican Party for the rest of his career – Kirk established himself as one of the most media savvy politicians to emerge from a transitional moment in Southern politics. While Kirk’s challenge to the integration order recalled earlier protests by Southern governors like Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett or George Wallace, Kirk insisted that he was a new breed of Southern politician. He declined to attend a 1967 Southern governors meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, calling it 'divisive and unwise'. 'I’m not one of these red-necked governors like Lester Maddox. I’m the only good guy in the South', Kirk told the Saturday Evening PostKirk also wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times, in which he disagreed with an editorial that described him (alongside Strom Thurmond and others) as 'hardshell conservatives' who were 'notably unsympathetic to the Negro drive for increased political participation'. 'There really is a new South', Kirk argued, 'we have not solved all our problems, but at least we are willing to try. One-party government with its old racist appeal is finished, whether it knows it or not.' Halberstam described Kirk’s 'New South' approach as a 'politics of confrontation – seeming action and seeming motion, issues seeming to be resolved…the Governor seems to be standing up to them; or it. That there is often little substance in the issue, that the problems will be the same tomorrow does not matter, for something dramatic has happened, and the Governor is credited with an unusual action.' Kirk’s 'politics of confrontation' was particularly well suited to television news, which favoured flamboyant individuals and fresh developments as newsworthy over staid politicians and complex continuing stories. For his part, Kirk grasped the power of television and worked to make himself comfortable in front of television cameras, repeating his press statements separately for each of the four local television teams that covered the state capitol in TallahasseeKirk’s busing protest put his politics of confrontation on national display.

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