The 1960s, today recalled as a decade of radicalism, clearly had a conservative side as well. With the founding in 1960 of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), conservative students emerged as a force in politics. There were striking parallels between the Sharon Statement, issued by ninety young people who gathered at the estate of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley in Sharon, Connecticut, to establish YAF, and the Port Huron Statement of SDS of 1962 (discussed later in this chapter). Both manifestos portrayed youth as the cutting edge of a new radicalism, and both claimed to offer a route to greater freedom. The Sharon Statement summarized beliefs that had circulated among conservatives during the past decade—the free market underpinned “personal freedom,” government must be strictly limited, and “international communism,” the gravest threat to liberty, must be destroyed.
YAF aimed initially to take control of the Republican Party from leaders who had made their peace with the New Deal and seemed willing to coexist with communism. YAF members became Barry Goldwater’s shock troops in 1964. Despite his landslide defeat in the general election, Goldwater’s nomination was a remarkable triumph for a movement widely viewed as composed of fanatics out to “repeal the twentieth century.”
A 1967 rally by members of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group that flourished in the 1960s.
A white resident of Selma offers her support to civil rights demonstrators.
Goldwater also brought new constituencies to the conservative cause. His campaign aroused enthusiasm in the rapidly expanding suburbs of southern California and the Southwest. Orange County, California, many of whose residents had recently arrived from the East and Midwest and worked in defense-related industries, became a nationally known center of grassroots conservative activism. The funds that poured into the Goldwater campaign from the Sunbelt’s oilmen and aerospace entrepreneurs established a new financial base for conservatism. And by carrying five states of the Deep South, Goldwater showed that the civil rights revolution had redrawn the nation’s political map, opening the door to a “southern strategy” that would eventually lead the entire region into the Republican Party Well before the rise of Black Power, a reaction against civil rights gains offered conservatives new opportunities and threatened the stability of the Democratic coalition. During the 1950s, many conservatives had responded favorably to southern whites’ condemnation of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision as an invasion of states’ rights. The National Review, an influential conservative magazine, referred to whites as “the advanced race” and defended black disenfranchisement on the grounds that “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” In 1962, YAF bestowed its Freedom Award on Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, one of the country’s most prominent segregationists. During the 1960s, most conservatives abandoned talk of racial superiority and inferiority. But conservative appeals to law and order, “freedom of association,” and the evils of welfare often had strong racial overtones. Racial divisions would prove to be a political gold mine for conservatives.