An interview with writer Chidike Okeem on black conservatism—its heroes, principles, and misrepresentations.
Unsung Conservative Heroes: An Introduction
Since the dawn of Western civilization, man has looked to heroes—persons of courage, extraordinary achievement, and noble character—for inspiration and leadership. Achilles was a mythical Greek hero, immortalized by Homer, who lived and died in pursuit of honor. Saint Joan of Arc was a medieval heroine who led the French to victory in the Hundred Years’ War. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn survived Siberia and a forced labor camp to expose the infamous Gulag Archipelago. America has had its share of heroes in war and peace, from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln to Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
Whether we work on Wall Street or Main Street; vote Republican or Democratic; read the New York Times or the Washington Times; are white, black, or brown; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim; rich or poor; young or old, we need heroes to inspire us.
That certainly holds true for conservatives. How did American conservatism come to be a major and even a dominant player in our politics? By luck? As the beneficiary of a political pendulum that swings left for a generation, then right, then left, ad infinitum? Through divine providence?
I believe in providence, but I also believe in free will and admire those who exercise it. American conservatism is no accident. It has been shaped and molded and brought to its present position of influence by the concrete actions of five groups of conservatives who are the match of any past American heroes.
First came the philosophers, people of ideas like F. A. Hayek, Richard Weaver, Whittaker Chambers, and Russell Kirk.
Next were the popularizers, skilled interpreters like William F. Buckley Jr., George F. Will, and Rush Limbaugh, who translated the often-arcane ideas of the philosophers into a common idiom.
Then came the politicians, people of action like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich, who ran for office, passed laws, and formed a political movement based on what they read and heard in the conservative media.
Supporting these groups were the philanthropists, people of means and of vision like Henry Salvatori, Joseph Coors, and J. Howard Pew. Salvatori led the financing of Reagan’s 1965 exploratory tour of California that persuaded him to run for governor. Coors invested $250,000 in an untested idea conceived by two unknown congressional staffers—Paul Weyrich and Ed Feulner—that became the Heritage Foundation. After reading an article in Human Events about the need for a college organization that promoted free enterprise, Pew wrote a $1,000 check that led Frank Chodorov to found the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (later renamed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute).
The fifth group of conservatives I call the poets—artists like the poet T. S. Eliot, the novelist Tom Wolfe, and the playwright David Mamet, who created movies, plays, novels, and poems that reached millions who had never subscribed to National Review or stuffed one letter in a political campaign.
Time and again, we have honored these eminent philosophers, popularizers, politicians, philanthropists, and poets, these heroes. We have praised Ronald Reagan, who persuaded a Democratic Congress to pass a historic tax cut that sparked an unprecedented economic recovery lasting more than a decade; Barry Goldwater, who lost a presidential race by the largest margin in history but laid the foundation for a conservative revolution and presidency just sixteen years later; William F. Buckley Jr., who challenged the liberal zeitgeist with a little magazine, a weekly TV program, a newspaper column, and a series of Bondian novels featuring a CIA hero; Russell Kirk, who proved Lionel Trilling and all the other liberal intellectuals wrong with his landmark book The Conservative Mind, which traced a tradition of conservatism in America from the founding of the Republic to the modern age.
Those towering figures deserve our praise and honor. But lesser-known heroes merit our attention as well.
President Reagan had a special empathy for unsung heroes. He often recognized such people in his annual State of the Union address to Congress. Among the “heroes in the balcony,” reflecting America’s unmatched diversity, were a black woman who chose work over welfare, a Hispanic medic rescued in the Grenada invasion, a returned prisoner of war, a teenager whose experiment had been lost in the Challenger explosion, a black female advertising executive, and a Cuban refugee entrepreneur.
Inspired by Reagan’s example, I am pleased to introduce a series of short essays about the unrecognized men and women of the American conservative movement who have contributed almost as much as their better-known colleagues. Without them, there would be no conservative alternative to the progressive plan for a secularized, globalized, socialist America. Without them, conservatives would still be relegated to isolated outposts in the academy, politics, and the popular culture.
Their telling contributions to conservatism have been forgotten or have never been adequately acknowledged. This is our purpose—to give proper place and praise to the unsung heroes without whom there would be no conservative movement in America.
Each new essay in this series will profile a new, underappreciated figure. Here are the unsung heroes featured thus far. I will periodically add new entries to the list below:
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author or editor of twenty-five books, including Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution, William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, and his memoir, Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty.
Image by Isaac Benhesed via Unsplash.