Why Mislead Readers about Milton Friedman and Segregation?

The curious case of the Wall Street Journal article on Virginia and school vouchers

Not long ago I published the results of my research on the backstory of Milton Friedman’s discussion of education in his Capitalism and Freedom. The title of my INET Working Paper summed up my findings: “How Milton Friedman Exploited White Supremacy to Privatize Education.” Drawing on the private papers of Friedman and other primary sources, the paper started with the obvious: that as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 outlawing segregation in public education, southern political leaders began scheming to evade it and maintain racist education systems.

My paper was clear that we do not know exactly how much Milton Friedman knew of these plans when he wrote the 1955 case for vouchers that spawned today’s “school choice” movement. But we know for sure that, to promote his views, he decided to exploit the southern campaign. Documenting his take up and work with segregationists makes up the bulk of my paper. I also showed that Friedman’s correspondence with an economist colleague who was troubled by his stance revealed that his soothing reassurances that making parents responsible for paying for the education of their children might somehow enhance quality or even reduce segregation in some indefinite long run only scratched the surface of what he really thought. For in a twist reminiscent of some eugenics campaigns through the ages, he wrote that if parents were forced to assume the entire burden of paying for the education of their children, poor people would decide to have fewer of them.

One would think that today the facts about the long struggle of southern white leaders to preserve segregation are so well known that simple fact-checking would suffice to rule out attempts to whitewash their efforts. And that efforts to exculpate economists and policy advisers who worked with them would collapse out of sheer shame.

But on October 18th an author in the Wall St. Journal set out to defend Friedman and rebut my INET study. Written by Phillip W. Magness, the attempted rebuttal bore the title “School Choice’s Antiracist History,” and carried the summary line that “Vouchers Sped up Integration, While Teachers Unions Fought to Preserve Segregation.”

That assertion could not stand up to even a quick internet search of reputable online Virginia history sites such as this one or this one. But here we are. Because the Wall St. Journal is such a prominent venue, and because Magness’s piece is such a teachable example of how unwilling libertarians have been to reckon with their cause’s long history of working against civil rights reform, I think it is worth exploring just how perverse the whole set of claims Magness advances really is. I also want to invite other libertarians to come to terms with his conduct, and finally accept their past so that they can learn from it.

Magness’s article begins as an attempt to defend Milton Friedman’s advocacy of private school vouchers in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education but quickly descends into a wholesale whitewashing of the formative era of their cause. Magness plays fast and loose with the staple elements of sound history: context, chronology, change over time, causation, and complexity.

Refusing to acknowledge facts established by African American civil rights leaders at the time and by seven decades of scholarship since the period I wrote about, and going well beyond a generous reading of Friedman as naïve and opportunistic, Magness seeks to make his readers believe that down is up and night is day: that a school voucher program designed and advocated by Virginia’s most avid white supremacists in the late 1950s in defiance of the desegregation mandate was intentionally “antiracist.”

The first stunning feature of Magness’s piece is that although he claims to be refuting my work, he completely ignores the substance of my research, especially the obvious point that Friedman published his case for vouchers at the very moment the South’s most arch segregationist officials were threatening public education (in 1955). Friedman then came South to make his case among potential disciples in the region’s universities (in 1957). Thereafter, Friedman moved on to active cooperation with a leading segregationist voucher advocate introduced to him by his first Ph.D. student, G. Warren Nutter, then a faculty member at the University of Virginia. Finally, my INET piece demonstrated that other leading libertarians—including what was then a leading libertarian foundation, the William Volker Fund – joined Friedman in embracing the segregationist voucher program, as did many members of the Mont Pelerin Society and two Virginia-based board members of the Foundation for Economic Education. The INET piece also points out that Friedman held up Virginia’s segregationist vouchers as a universal model in his 1962 manifesto Capitalism and Freedom.

This is all documented over 28 pages of abundant evidence with 84 footnotes and a 6-page bibliography including primary sources that Magness never engages in any detail.

Instead, he changes the subject by creating out of whole cloth a context-free story that seeks to absolve Friedman by fingering others. In Magness’s Virginia, there is no powerful oligarchy led by Harry F. Byrd, the aristocratic former Governor and sitting U.S. Senator at the time who called for “Massive Resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education. The deliberately created Virginia system of elections with its minuscule voter turnouts thanks to poll taxes, off-year races, and other disabling restrictions is never mentioned. Nor is there a Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, the organization founded to carry out that program.

Readers of Magness would never know that these self-appointed guardians of segregation on June 8, 1955, issued a Plan for Virginia that called on the General Assembly to pass legislation to supply tuition vouchers for white parents to send children to private segregation academies, and to cut off state funds to any school that integrated. The Assembly’s overwhelmingly rural white conservative representatives complied in 1956. But you do not learn this from Mr. Magness, who manufactures a chronology of immaculate conception, presenting vouchers as first arising in 1958 to make his own fictitious narrative work.

Instead, Magness would have his readers believe that the era’s worst oppressors were “teachers’ unions.” This is rich; almost amazing, in fact. Anyone conversant with this period of Virginia history or the history of public sector unionism would immediately recognize its implausibility. The state was an early adopter of right-to-work legislation in 1947 and had a long history of labor suppression. And besides, there were no “teachers’ unions” at the time. There were only voluntary professional associations, segregated as the school districts employing them would have insisted they be. None had the power to be responsible for what Magness alleges. Further, this was a decade before teachers had collective bargaining rights anywhere; public employees in right-to-work states like Virginia to this day lack that means of exercising collective voice. The claim is preposterous on its face.

Nor is this all. Magness conjures up an entity he calls “Virginia’s racist antivoucher movement.” Abetting the teachers’ unions, he tells us, were the so-called moderate whites, who mobilized to save public education. Reasoning from a crude public choice axiom that people only act in their own (usually venal) self-interest, he depicts “public-education interests” as acting to save public education to preserve “their funding.” That assertion is a headscratcher since the movement was led by mothers, ministers, and some forward-looking businessmen, none of whom gained income from public education. But leave that to the side. It’s not the character assassination that matters now, but his claim about causation.

Seeking to make his reductionist public choice logic work, Magness asserts that the cause he seeks to malign “traces its origins” to a particular Charlottesville elementary school in 1958. This is impossible to take seriously. He adduces one school board attorney there, John S. Battle, Jr. and offers up some racist quotes from this individual to have us believe that he has identified the missing mastermind speaking for the public schools. Magness maintains that those who were defending public education were doing so not only to line their own pockets but also to ensure segregation.

Magness has been ably refuted for this and other sleights of hand by Daniel Kuehn, a Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute. In fact, Kuehn’s excellent letter to the WSJ should shame its editors for giving Magness a platform with no attempt at fact-checking.

But there is a deeper moral stain here: the bait-and-switch gambit about who was most guilty could only seem plausible to someone unfamiliar with this history because Magness has mangled the context. He removes from readers’ view the other actors his case implicitly protects—the actual advocates of Massive Resistance who won the voucher program in 1956.

Thus, Magness keeps from readers potentially exculpatory information about how the protectors of public schools had to argue on terms set by the Massive Resisters, who had a grossly unfair advantage.[1] After all, Virginia’s conservatives—who had known for generations that their policy preferences were unpopular—disenfranchised Black voters, maintained a poll tax to also keep lower-income whites from voting, hamstrung labor unions, and used legislative malapportionment to overrepresent Byrd-backing rural whites and underrepresent liberal and moderate urban and suburban whites of all classes. Voting turnout in the gubernatorial election of 1957, for example, was 23.2%; in 1961, it was 16.7.

Those seeking to rescue public education from the wrecking ball of Massive Resistance knew all too well two key things about the enfranchised white voters they had to persuade: that most believed in public schools, and also preferred segregation. To save the schools for future generations, some advocates appealed to that racism in their arguments. They pointed out in print (“thundered” in Magness’s rendering) that the voucher program—designed only for parents in schools closed under the Massive Resistance policy—was being “greatly abused” by wealthier parents who had long sent their children to private schools and now tried to free-ride the segregationist voucher program to save money.

These people were trying to stem the revenue drain that threatened to destroy most children’s education, not to protect segregation per se.[2] They were no heroes in the fight for racial equity, to be sure. But nor were they the drivers of history—the causal force—Magness makes them out to be in his quest to exonerate Friedman and his Virginia allies. That disgrace belongs to Harry Byrd, his famous political machine (known as the Byrd Organization); James J. Kilpatrick, as editor of the Richmond News Leader and National Review stringer; and other champions long since identified by serious historians.[3]

While insisting that this formative voucher system was “antiracist,” Magness does another very curious thing that tells us something important about his real mission here.

He turns a deaf ear to those in the best position to judge his portrayal: contemporary African Americans. Virtually to a person, Black Virginians opposed the segregationist vouchers. Moreover, the state’s civil rights leaders quietly applauded the white-led fight to save public schools so that they could survive being desegregated. My piece quoted, among others, Oliver Hill, the Richmond-based NAACP attorney who helped win the Brown ruling. Hill put their shared conviction concisely: “No one in a democratic society has a right to have his private prejudices financed at public expense.”

Magness, like Friedman before him, clearly disagrees with Hill and other Black Virginians of the day. Indeed, he sides with the white supremacist parents who saw no ethical problem in taxing disenfranchised Black citizens to subsidize private segregation academies. But Magness lacks the courage of his convictions to argue the case honestly and openly, as Milton Friedman did, in the name of liberty from state coercion—opposing what Friedman called “forced nonsegregation.” Today, not many outside libertarian ranks would accept that liberty for some based on the exclusion and subjugation of others deserves to be called by that word. Aware of that vulnerability, Magness has invented “alternative facts.”

Some of the worst alternative facts on display in his work involve the tragic case of Prince Edward County, where local officials allied with the Defenders of State Sovereignty in Individual Liberties completely shut down public schools for Black children for five years, while sending white children off to segregated private schools—for part of that time with the state-funded vouchers Friedman backed to buy white solidarity that would otherwise fracture.

To pretend to unknowing readers that voucher advocates opposed racism, Magness makes the misleading point that “most voucher advocates welcomed a 1961 federal court ruling” that denied Prince Edward County access to tax-funded vouchers after county leaders shut down the public school system for Black children in defiance of Brown. I say misleading because Magness appears to have spent some time in primary sources that would readily refute his premises, even if he is determined to ignore the evidence in my work and others on this pivotal episode in civil rights history.

As my INET article showed, the two shrewdest pro-segregation strategists—the journalists Leon Dure and his convert James J. Kilpatrick—were painfully aware that Prince Edward County’s defiant stand was endangering the wider effort to salvage as much segregation as possible in the new constitutional context. It was hard to convince the National Review darling Jack Kilpatrick to stop trumpeting Prince Edward’s stand and see its peril for the voucher cause, not least because he had encouraged the county’s leaders to such an extent that they named the segregation academy’s library after him. After all, Kilpatrick in one debate warned the NAACP attorney and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “We will fight state by state…school by school, and if necessary, room by room. The white south proposes to resist…by every device of legislation and litigation that ingenious men can contrive—and we can contrive quite a few.”

But contrary to what Magness has told his readers, Kilpatrick soon came around to endorse the formally race-neutral vouchers advocated by Friedman and Dure as a way to win the fight against desegregation. He did so repeatedly, in print, at a time Magness claims he was opposing vouchers. During the 1959 legislative session in which the revised voucher program was crafted and adopted, Kilpatrick editorialized repeatedly in favor of it. On February 11, he explained that “a tuition grant plan, to be valid, cannot be tied in any way, directly or indirectly, to the segregation controversy.” If it were, it would not “survive court challenge.” The 1956 program just voided by the State Supreme Court had proven that vulnerability.[4]

On March 6, Kilpatrick warned the legislators not to “bungle” the opportunity to ensure that “white parents” in areas with the largest concentrations of Black residents (including Prince Edward), would get “the only tolerable answer” to their unwillingness to have their children attend school with Black peers: state-subsidized private schools.[5]

On March 19, Kilpatrick told the General Assembly, “the plan of tuition grants is basically sound.” In fact, he explained, it was the only viable way “to meet the integration problem in Virginia” and ensure a “workable system that will endure for years to come.”[6]

On April 2, after the revised plan passed, Kilpatrick went further: he advised changing the state constitution to ensure state subsidies to private schools could never be eliminated. Such a referendum could forever, in his words, save “Virginia from the evils of integration.”[7]

On April 23, furious that legislators had rejected his extremist constitutional measure, he charged cowardice: “needless and premature retreat—from Statewide resistance to integration.” Worse, he said, the Assembly had undermined white solidarity “in fighting a superbly unified foe”: presumably, the NAACP and the federal and state courts which its plaintiffs and attorneys had won over.[8]

How did Magness overlook this extensive documentary record to misinform readers that Kilpatrick only came around to backing vouchers in 1962? Magness quoted the Richmond News Leader’s news coverage of Battle’s anti-voucher position in Charlottesville but curiously failed to acknowledge that Kilpatrick’s editorial page was consistently and loudly pro-voucher.[9]

Dure and Kilpatrick then labored for several years to get Prince Edward County’s leaders to reopen the schools and embrace formally colorblind vouchers while there was still time. As Dure summarized: “the only way to get rid of compulsory integration was to erect the old marketplace right of free choice”—or “freedom of choice of association,” as he originally branded the vouchers to signal that white recipients should be free to refuse to have their children associate with Black children. Privately, Kilpatrick tutored the bullheaded Senator Byrd that “sound generalship” called for “waging a flexible, shifting, guerrilla defense.” By that he meant a switch to ostensibly color-blind vouchers that could survive court review.

So yes, Magness is technically correct in reporting that voucher advocates applauded the ruling against Prince Edward’s school closures. But he is withholding crucial evidence, either from ignorance or intent: that advocates like Dure and Kilpatrick welcomed the ruling precisely because they were segregationists who knew that the denial of education to Black children endangered the wider cause. After all, the Prince Edward horror was widely reported and condemned almost universally by outsiders—with the exception of the National Review and like thinkers who applauded the white county leaders’ stand for, as the Defenders’ name put it, “state sovereignty and individual liberties.”

On the very eve of the 1961 ruling Magness cites, in fact, Leon Dure met with and then sweet-talked the attorney for Prince Edward and a leader of the Defenders, J. Segar Gravatt, by warning that “in winning this battle you lose the campaign.” He went on to explain that “you subject the very thing we all want [state-funded vouchers for segregation academies] … to the unnecessary risk of bad context: the black heart of Prince Edward.”

Not long after, Dure privately referred to Gravatt and company as “stupid buttheads.” Their obstinacy was harming his fundraising for two segregation academies as well as his attempt to build pro-voucher alliances with northern Catholics. Dure and Kilpatrick never did persuade the “stupid buttheads.”

But the two did win over the head of the Charlottesville Defenders of State Sovereignty, a University of Virginia math professor who testified in favor of converting to colorblind vouchers in the spring of 1959. Dure then exulted to a former Governor: “The Defenders up here [in Charlottesville], like the [General] Assembly, are now entirely willing to give up segregation by law in a swap for the individual freedom of association.” Let’s be clear: they made a swap for the better word-smithed pro-segregation vouchers that Magness sold to the credulous Wall St. Journal opinion page editors as “antiracist.”

Dure went on to enjoy remarkable “success with segregationist officialdom in the Deep South,” as a member of the Southern Regional Council noted at the time. She skewered the vouchers for “pamper[ing] the pride of prejudiced white people with privileged and expensive isolation in private schools.”[10]

What should we call someone who wrongfully accuses bystanders while keeping information from the jury about the actual perpetrators? Accessory after-the-fact? For there is no getting around it: Magness’s account is complicit with the segregationists’ attempts to fool both the judiciary and northern critics with phony race-neutral vouchers. He is airbrushing from the past a history that is troublesome for his cause.

At the end of the day, though, Magness relies not only on evisceration of historical context, phony chronology, and sham causation. He also shows a willingness to stretch the truth beyond endurance. And not just once. Magness comforts his WSJ readers (who might be feeling some moral prickly heat about this history) with a statement he must know to be untrue, unless he is self-deceiving: he tells them Friedman pushed the vouchers “as a strategy to expedite integration.”

Magness is fully aware that was not Friedman’s purpose in touting vouchers, hence not “a strategy.” As the Urban Institute researcher Daniel Kuehn, himself a supporter of well-regulated vouchers, told the Wall St. Journal: “In Friedman’s 1962 best-seller Capitalism and Freedom he stressed not once, but twice, that the purpose of Virginia’s voucher program was to defend segregation.” Friedman was under no illusion that the voucher proponents in Virginia were doing anything other than promoting segregation. He just tried a Hail Mary pass to claim there might be a silver lining in the end (one that never materialized).

As if to reassure himself and his readers that his deal with the devil was not what it seemed, Friedman at a few points predicted that vouchers would eventually result in integration, reasoning not from any empirical evidence but axiomatically from his ideological premises. For such a smart man that would seem surprisingly self-delusional, because contemporary published investigations from across the South and in the Black press had been reporting the opposite since 1956: that the vouchers were working as intended—to forestall integration. That is why the NAACP continuously fought them in court. But Friedman ignored all this. Seeing that his logic failed the test of practice for seven years after publishing his case, he anted up as the only proof for his sunny predictions some hearsay: “I have been told,” (likely by Leon Dure) that one early voucher advocate transferred to an integrated school because it was a better school.[11]

“I predict” and “I have been told”: what kind of public officials would adopt a radical policy change on such flimsy foundations?

For his part, Magness goes further. He hoodwinks readers about the Massive Resisters whose program Friedman was abetting from 1955 to 1959 by inventing yet another alternative fact, this one at odds with a mountain of contemporary evidence and subsequent scholarship: “Virginia’s segregationist hard-liners recognized the likely outcomes [of vouchers expediting integration, sayeth Magness] and began attacking school choice as an existential threat to their white-supremacist order.”

There is no nice way to say it: this is a complete falsification of what actually happened. And Magness doubled down on it in his October 22 attempt to rebut Kuehn’s critique.

It’s as though Magness cannot resist churning out nonsense. “Vouchers sped up integration,” Magness declares. Really? Why, then, did the federal appeals court conclude in Griffin v. State Board of Education, 296 F. Supp. 178 (1969) that Virginia’s “freedom of choice” vouchers blocked integration? How did the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s team of attorneys so fool the judges about the purpose and effect of Virginia’s voucher system? How was the court hornswoggled into believing that, in the conclusion of Judge Albert V. Bryan, “the present and past school tuition grant laws of Virginia are again assailed as violative of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment”?

Perversely, perhaps it’s good that Magness and his libertarian colleagues who make analogous arguments don’t want to acknowledge how their cause has leveraged (and is leveraging) racism to achieve its purposes. It means they know white supremacy is no longer acceptable to most people. And they realize that people might see an even deeper ethical failure on the part of someone like Friedman, who said “I deplore segregation and racial prejudice”—yet rather than walk that walk, chose to ally with arch segregationists to achieve his own goal of privatization.

People might be further shocked to learn that at no point, at the time or later, did Friedman and his libertarian allies in this effort ever look critically at what they had done. For, after all, they were accessories to the Massive Resisters who sought to overturn what Brown promised: equal protection of the law for African Americans.


[1] See James H. Hershman, Jr., “A Rumbling in the Museum: The Opponents of Virginia’s Massive Resistance,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1978), a superb study, and the first to show how white “moderates” who had worked so hard to save public education came to accept the tuition grants as a “safety valve” compromise for militant Black-majority counties like Prince Edward, in a shift from “caste” to “class”-based moats for white privilege.

[2] As signaled by the title of this article about the sole individual Magness cites for his case, John S. Battle, Jr: “Battle Cautions Against Move to Private Schools,” Charlottesville Daily Progress, 24 March 1959.

[3] This was all documented in my 2017 book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, particularly Chapters 3 and 4. Numerous libertarians denounced it vociferously while failing to ever come to terms with its well-documented factual content on this matter and others covered in its pages.

[4] “Notes on Tuition Grants,” Richmond News Leader, Feb. 11, 1959, p. 12.

[5] “In a Few Words,” ibid., March 6, 1959, p. 12.

[6] “Keep It Simple, Mr. Perrow,” ibid. March 19, 1959, p. 12.

[7] “The Perrow Report,” ibid., April 2, 1959, p.10. On the proposed constitutional change, see also “Virginians Divide on School Bills,” New York Times, April 10, 1959. P. 30.

[8] “A Sorry Session,” April 23, 1959, p. 14.

[9] For more on Kilpatrick’s opportunistic evolution, well-known to students of Virginia history, see William P. Hustwit, James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[10] Margaret Long, Editorial introducing “Six Years of Southern Free Choice,” New South, April 1964, 2, 16.

[11] Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 117-18. On other occasions, Friedman would change the subject and invoke Chicago, which was certainly segregated, too, as though that answered the question of whether the South would desegregate or not.

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