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August 15, 2014 1:21 PM The “Erstwhile Segregationist” Miller

By Ed Kilgore

I really don’t want to spend the day talking about Zell Miller, but TPM has posted a Daniel Strauss piece about Zell’s endorsement of Michelle Nunn with an unfortunate headline: “Why Is Dem Nunn Touting Endorsement From An Erstwhile Segregationist?” Nothing in the piece documents that label (there’s a link back to a 2012 TPM piece on Miller using the same label but again without specific documentation), and there’s one brief reference to Miller’s ad suggesting it might conflict with Nunn’s need for strong African-American support.

I’m not saying “erstwhile segreationist” is untrue; every white politician in Georgia of Miller’s generation, including Jimmy Carter, could be so described. But is that really how best to describe him?

Miller ran a congressional campaign in the early sixties where he attacked civil rights legislation; he’s repeatedly apologized for it as the most shameful action of his entire career. And he did serve as Gov. Lester Maddox’s first chief-of-staff, though as I recall no one associated him with Lester’s racial politics (again, an appropriate comparison is to Carter, who helped vote Maddox into office when the Georgia legislature was required to decide the 1966 gubernatorial election). By the time Miller himself ran for statewide office in 1974, he enjoyed strong African-American support, as he did in his re-election campaigns in 1978, 1982 and 1986. In 1980, he had very heavy black support in a primary challenge to Sen. Herman Talmadge, who was truly an “erstwhile segregationist.” I don’t recall there being any racial tensions associated with his gubernatorial primary contest with Andrew Young in 1990; and again, his black support was solid through his last campaign in 2000. Until his famous endorsement of George W. Bush in 2004, he regularly supported national Democratic candidates for president. And as Strauss does note, the last overtly racial issue Miller was associated with was his politically near-suicidal effort to get Confederate imagery out of the state flag.

Look, I’ve said as many negative things about Zell Miller as anyone you can find. I’ve called him an apostate, a reincarnated Andrew Johnson; a man whose new right-wing friends have total contempt for his heritage. I’ve called him “Zell Bent” and suggested he was half-crazed with paranoia and haunted by imaginary demons. But “erstwhile segregationist” isn’t the first, second, third or fourth thing I’d think about him, and while there are plenty of legitimate questions about Michelle Nunn’s deployment of him in an ad, his positions on civil rights legislation a half-century ago should not be real high on the list.

UPDATE: Pleased to report that after I remonstrated with Josh Marshall on Twitter, the headline of the Strauss piece has been changed to omit the “erstwhile segregationist” phrase in the headline, and also to more accurately characterize Miller’s history on racial issues.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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