Why Conservatives Should Be Leading the Civil Rights Movement


Why Conservatives Should Be Leading the Civil Rights Movement

Jun 9, 2020 13 min read
The Hon. Kay Coles James

Emeritus Trustee since 2022

Heritage Trustee from 2005 to 2022 | Heritage President from 2018 to 2021
iStock / Getty Images Plus

“Conservatives should be leading the civil rights movement,” says Kay C. James, president of The Heritage Foundation. 

James joined the “Problematic Women” podcast to explain that the answers to many of the issues plaguing the African American community, such as poverty, lack of access to good health care, and poor education systems, are issues conservatives have the viable solutions for. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: We are joined by Kay Coles James, the president of The Heritage Foundation, founder of the Gloucester Institute, author, wife, mother, and our favorite problematic woman. Mrs. James, thanks so much for being here today.

Kay Coles James: It is my absolute pleasure. This is my favorite podcast and I don’t say that in any gratuitous way just for you.

Allen: Mrs. James, thank you so much. That is so incredibly kind of you to say. We’re going to have to put that in quotes and maybe put it up on a wall somewhere.

Well, you have had a very busy few days celebrating your birthday on Monday, chairing the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission meeting Tuesday, and then the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission meeting Wednesday, and all while still leading The Heritage Foundation.

Mrs. James, how do you do it all?

James: Well, I do it by having a great breakfast every morning, having a time of meditation and prayer, keeping up with geriatric yoga. It keeps me going.

Lauren Evans: I love that. We all have to have our ways to really relax and unwind.

So, Mrs. James, this week Axios ran the headline: “Coronavirus is old news,” and yet the virus is still here, people are still suffering, and many businesses are still closed.

You’re getting ready to release the final report of the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission with more than 250 recommendations. Why are you so passionate about this issue and what can we expect from the commission’s report?

James: I’m passionate about it because this virus has attacked our country in two ways. First and foremost, with the loss of lives and the health impact that it’s had on so many. And also with the loss of many livelihoods.

If this country stays shut down too much longer, the impact that it would have, the long-term impact that it would have on our economy would be devastating.

So I’m passionate because I love this country and I don’t want to see a virus or anything else destroy her.

So we work and so we work long and so we work hard and I am so pleased with all the individuals from The Heritage Foundation and those individuals who are on the commission who have put in more hours than I can even imagine to get this done in a timely way so that it would be helpful to the president and Congress and governors and mayors all across this country.

Allen: Mrs. James, we’re so thankful for all of the work that you’re doing and [that] The Heritage Foundation is doing on the commission. [It] really is just so inspirational to see.

Now, I do want to shift for just a minute and let’s discuss what’s going on today, right now. We’re at such a pivotal moment in America’s history as we grieve the loss of George Floyd, and we’ve asked ourselves some really difficult questions about racism in America.

You’ve put forward a call to action for Americans and conservatives in particular to really step up right now. How can we each make a difference?

James: I have. And one of the reasons that I have is because for years, not just in the last few days, but for years, I have said that the answers to poverty, the answers to an an unequal educational system in our country, the answer to access to health care, the answer to protecting our borders, all of those answers rely within the conservative movement.

When I look at those protesters that are on the street, I just want to shout at them that if you would take a minute and stop and listen to the voices coming from the conservative side of the aisle, we have real answers.

They’re not pandering answers. We don’t pander, and we don’t do identity politics, and we don’t shape a message just to get a vote. We have real answers for real problems.

I think that’s why it’s so important to me that at this moment, at this moment in our country’s history, conservatives step up and say, “Yes, I see the problem. I am understanding it perhaps in even new and different ways than I ever have before. And I want to walk with those individuals who love America, are willing to lay down their lives for this country.”

We do. We love this nation. And in spite of what some people think, pointing out that there are things that we need to fix in this country is not the same as equating that this country is a racist nation. It is not. I have never said it. I will never say it.

I believe that the Founders gave us a gift, a gift of a form of government that allows us to work through our problems to fix them. No other country on the Earth, none is as exceptional as this nation.

What we need to understand is that to point out our flaws and say, “Let’s, together, fix them” does not mean we hate America or we distrust our leaders or that we are not supportive of our institutions. And that’s why I’m so passionate about this.

I believe that we, as conservatives, have the keys to all of the issues that are so important to those people out on the streets, and we have to step up and tell them, guide them, lead them.

It reminds me of when I used to say years ago that I believe that pro-life women should lead the feminist movement because we are more feminist than the so-called feminist leaders. We actually believe that we don’t have to mutilate our bodies or kill our babies in order to be equal to any man.

Today, I feel like conservatives should be leading the civil rights movement, we’re the only ones who do understand individual liberty, extreme inequality. We shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s our the movement to lead.

Evans: Wow. I have goosebumps.

You wrote in an op-ed for Fox, “During my 70 years on this Earth, I have lived through the civil rights movement, I’ve seen the highs and lows of this country, I have seen America’s goodness, and I’ve seen its hatred.”

Can you tell us about your own personal experience as part of the civil rights movement?

James: Ah, yes. Oliver Hill was a great civil rights attorney and he was my cousin. I’ve seen him have crosses burned on his lawn. I personally integrated the schools in the South and had to walk past angry mobs yelling names at me as we tried to get equal access to education.

I know what it’s like, even today, to have a grandson and a granddaughter. Incidentally, both of my kids in Northern Virginia have experienced racial slurs at school and had to come home and ask what they meant. And I fought hard so that my grandchildren would not have to experience that.

And for anybody … who wants to say that there’s not racism in America today, all they have to do is scroll through some of the comments section on Facebook posts and Twitter and it’s there, it’s there.

So we have to stand against that as conservatives, we have the moral authority to stamp against that as conservatives, and at the same time, not blink an eye about our love and our commitment to this nation.

The two are not mutually exclusive. I don’t know why so many people have a hard time with that.

I explained it to a friend recently by saying, I am a mama bear. I love my children and my grandchildren with a passion equal to any mom or grandma on the planet. But daggum it, I do have to correct them. I do have to tell them when they are doing things wrong, and it’s not in spite of the fact that I love them, it’s because I love them that I want to shape them to greatness.

It is my love and my passion for this country that compelled me to want to see the American ideal achieved, to see what the Founders, when they sat in those hot crowded rooms and drafted our documents, and they had this vision for what a great country could look like. And it’s my duty as an American to live every day to make that dream a reality for all of us.

Allen: Wow, thank you, Mrs. James. Like you mentioned, tragically, we are seeing that racism, it is still an issue in America today, in our country that we love so dearly. How are you personally processing the death of George Floyd?

James: The video is—I didn’t watch it for a very long time. I knew it would take me to an emotional place that I just didn’t want to go. And as a result of that, I stood shielded from it for a while, but then I decided I owed it to his family and to his legacy to actually watch it. I couldn’t close my eyes and stick my head in the sand.

I think what people are missing is that whatever the individual circumstances in this case, it was in fact a tipping point for many Americans. And I think we’ll know more and we’ll learn more, we’ll see that. But for me, I understand the anger. I understand the frustration.

I understand that there are those individuals who want to take advantage of that for their own personal gain and for their own personal causes.

I am convinced that what we see happening on the streets in our country today, as people are burning and looting and maiming, that has nothing to do with the untimely death on the streets of Minneapolis of that black man with four officers standing nearby.

The two are almost disconnected, but we know that there are those individuals who want chaos, who want to see race wars in this country. And they’re using it to their advantage.

More often than not the peaceful protesters have gone home by the time that sort of behavior erupts. We have to stand against them. It does no good, it does not help the cause one bit.

I think every thoughtful person in America, if they could, would stand between those looters, would stand between those who want to bring chaos and destruction and push them back, hold them back.

I would love to go out there if I could and say, “We know who you are. We see you. You want to destroy America. We want to build her up.”

The death of that gentleman and the rioting and what’s going on are so separate, such distinct and different issues. It’s opportunistic blacks and opportunistic whites who have taken to the street to use it. But do not miss that even with those individuals out there, trying to take the focus away from the real issues, that there are real issues that need to be dealt with, but not that way.

Evans: Mrs. James, there is so much hurt and you watched these protests and when you’re speaking to your children and you’re speaking to your grandchildren, how do you even begin to address this issue? And then what is their response about this moment in history?

James: Well, let’s start the conversation with, I tell them if I ever see you doing something like that, I will personally come there and yank you off those streets. That’s the first thing.

And I want to teach them the history of how we bring about change in this country. I want to teach them about the systems that the Founders have put in place in order to address grievances. In terms of the process, I mean, let’s be clear, those that are yelling, “No justice, no peace,” could we get justice and opportunity to work?

So I want to teach my kids and I want to teach my grandchildren how you bring about social change, how you bring about justice.

People talk about protests all the time. What is it—every Jan. 22 when we marched down the streets to protest abortion in America. Peaceful protest is as American as apple pie. I have no problem with that. I have a huge problem with those individuals who want to usurp peaceful protest to destroy my country and my communities.

We need to figure out how to shut them down, lock them up, and treat them as the criminals they are.

You know, somebody said on one of these platforms the other day, “Oh, you’re just doing damage control now, you never spoke like that before.”

I have always said that. That’s not new. I have been saying it for 50 years. I said it when we were protesting back in the ’60s, violence and criminal behavior should never be tolerated. What is so hard to understand about that?

Allen: Yeah. Mrs. James, many African Americans in this country have said that they feel extremely nervous around police, especially when it comes to being stopped when driving. A few years ago, Sen. Tim Scott said that he was stopped while driving seven times in just one year. Did you have experiences in your own or your family’s life related to this?

James: Oh, my gosh. Yes. Oh, my word.

I think people feel that because, as a black conservative, I don’t wear race on my sleeve and I often don’t even talk about it there are other issues that have been a priority, life issues, protecting our country’s national defense, I am upset about the debt. I mean, race is [an] issue … on my list, but I don’t often talk about it. And the moment I do, it makes them nervous.

But by golly, my son and my daughter were visiting a white friend, driving through a neighborhood and were reported by the police and stopped and taken out of the car, placing their hands on the hood of a car and questioned as to why they were there.

We don’t make this stuff up. It’s real and it happens.

I should add that years later, out of a sense of irony, our family moved into that neighborhood and found many wonderful people there as neighbors who we love dearly. So both are true. Both are true.

Evans: Mrs. James, many conservatives are fearful of discussing and tackling racism. And I think the left kind of invades that space since conservatives are fearful about even talking about it because of the thought and the word policing.

So what is helpful and what’s not helpful for people to say and what resources would you recommend conservatives turn to to have these conversations?

James: The first resource I would recommend is the Holy Scriptures. There’s more guidance there about how we should treat each other than anywhere else. And it’s a good guide, by the way.

The other thing I would say is that I have been told in recent days, “Kay, you shouldn’t talk about these things. It plays into the left’s narrative.” And my response is it’s only their narrative because we gave it to them. It should be our narrative, take it back, make it our narrative.

We as a party stand for all the right things, the conservative movement. And so don’t hesitate to engage in these conversations. They belong to us. They don’t belong on the left.

The other thing that I would say is that talking about race, and I said this to several of my white friends one night when we were sitting around having a great conversation and the conversation turned to race, and I said, could we please talk about movies or books or almost anything because that conversation is so extremely painful and it’s painful to both sides.

And as human beings, we typically avoid pain, but sometimes you got to pull the scab off so the wound can heal. And so sometimes we’ve got to have those difficult and painful conversations.

I am grateful for my friends who over the years have allowed me to process all of this, who stood beside me, who are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am grateful for their friendship and they have listened and learned and they said, “I don’t see what you see. I’ve not walked in your shoes, but I want to know, and I want to understand.”

So one of the first things that I would say is, please don’t shut us down and say, “I don’t want to hear about race anymore.” Please don’t shut us down and say, “I don’t believe that there is a problem today anymore.”

Listen, listen, so that we together can heal. I’ve lived long enough that I know, listen to some of these young folks out there.

They don’t understand how far we’ve come. They can’t celebrate our victories because I lived through the segregated water fountains and the segregated lunch counters at the segregated school. I lived through that movement and I can see the progress.

I thankfully have lived long enough to see that the America that I loved provided a means and a pathway forward, but I am also not blind to what exists today. And it’s OK to talk about it. And when you do it doesn’t mean that you hate America. It means that you celebrate who we are as Americans and the gift that we’ve been given.

Allen: Mrs. James, thank you so much for your time. We really, really appreciate it.

James: Oh, thank you for tackling this difficult, difficult issue.