The Wild Road Trip That Launched the Populist Conservative Movement

How a fiery preacher and a maverick Army general took the nation by storm

Smithsonian Magazine
An American flag sits atop a gravestone in the cemetery of Oak Mountain Baptist Church in Shelby County, Alabama. (Kendrick Brinson)
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | September 2018

By 1963, Billy James Hargis had come a long way as a “bawl and jump” preacher. His evangelical speeches aired on hundreds of radio stations. He published scores of books and pamphlets. Hargis claimed that his nonprofit organization, the Christian Crusade, was “America’s largest anti-Communist group,” taking in $1 million in donations, with members in every state. He had a 700-acre ranch outside Tulsa, and he had his own Custom Coach bus, a “headquarters on wheels,” he called it, with $50,000 worth of added amenities.

But Hargis still had to slash his staff and salary because he found it hard to keep major donors. “These wealthy people are scared to be associated with a bunch of crackpots and Nazis—if you want to know the truth of the matter, that’s it,” he grumbled. “I think the capitalists of this country ought to be ashamed of themselves for the little they have done to protect freedom.”

To expand his donor base and awaken Americans to the threat communism posed to their way of life, he decided to marry his fortunes to a rising star on the far right edge of political discourse. On a late-February Sunday, Hargis and a few aides piled into a car and drove south to Dallas, pulling up to the gabled, two-story house at 4101 Turtle Creek Boulevard.

Three American flags flew in the front yard, along with a Texas state flag and the Confederate Stars and Bars. A small billboard displayed one of several exhortations, such as GET THE U.S. OUT OF THE U.N. or IMPEACH EARL WARREN. The local press dubbed it “the fortress on Turtle Creek.” Its commander was former Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker.

Walker was among the most accomplished Army officers of his generation, decorated for his service in World War II and the Korean War. More recently, in 1957, he won acclaim after troops he led kept the peace during the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, though, truth be told, he privately believed states should be free to segregate. Influenced in part by Hargis’ radio broadcasts, Walker also grew alarmed by what he saw as signs of a pervasive communist conspiracy in the United States.

While commanding troops in West Germany, he had implemented a training program based in part on literature from the John Birch Society, whose leader, Robert Welch, suspected that President Dwight Eisenhower was a secret communist. After an Army inquiry found that Walker’s program improperly combined political activity with military duty, he resigned his commission and forfeited his pension. “It will be my purpose now, as a civilian, to attempt to do what I have found it no longer possible to do in uniform,” he told Time.

A native of the Texas Hill Country, he settled in Dallas, the center of ultra-right-wing advocacy, much of it funded by H.L. Hunt, the billionaire oil tycoon. Hunt, who believed that he belonged to a genetically superior strain of humanity and that voting rights should be apportioned by wealth, told Walker there was a “legion of potential followers who would welcome you as a new type of Commander in Chief.”

Hargis, for his part, considered Walker a symbol “of freedom and liberty and resistance against the would-be liberal dictatorship in the United States.” He invited the general to embark on “a coast-to-coast midnight ride with me to alert the American public to the enemy within and without.”

Walker accepted, and they geared up for Operation Midnight Ride, a six-week, 29-stop bus tour from Florida to California. “I believe our trip will not only show the public demand for true representation,” he told the Dallas Morning News, “but will carry a message from city to city and create a psychological force that cannot be ignored.”

Greyhound bus
A bus departs from the Birmingham, Alabama, Greyhound station. (Kendrick Brinson)

Before Hargis and Walker headed out, in February 1963, no one knew whether this kind of tour would achieve its purpose, because no one had tried it before. The constituency they sought was fragmented, dispersed, bound largely by the ethereal threads of radio and the pamphlets that came to their mailboxes. Hargis called them “lonely patriots.” But by the time he and Walker were done, that constituency was visible and gathering, and would soon shape American politics for generations.

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Hargis and Walker did not ride off into a vacuum. Elements of conservative thought had been swirling through American culture ever since FDR’s New Deal sparked opposition from people wary of government intrusion into the free market. Joseph McCarthy had carried the banner of anti-communism in the 1950s, until his smear tactics brought about his censure by his fellow senators. William F. Buckley Jr.’s 1951 best seller, God and Man at Yale, communicated a suspicion of elite universities. The Rev. Billy Graham imbued the evangelical gospel with a conservative hue. The John Birch Society, founded in 1959, inveighed against the United Nations, communists and civil rights activists.

“There are these different ideological streams, disparate communities of the politically dissatisfied. They would not have all necessarily called themselves conservative at the time,” says Paul Matzko, a historian who specializes in right-wing politics and now works as an editor at the libertarian Cato Institute. “You have all these people who could be part of this movement, but they’re spread out. They need to sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves, to put it into action—not just feeling but doing things.”

The John F. Kennedy years gave urgency to their anger. The country had elected its first Catholic president, who surrounded himself with Ivy League liberals and used the U.S. military to enforce court decisions mandating integration in Southern states. The Soviet Union appeared ascendant, planting a satellite state in Cuba. Black and white popular cultures were merging into godless new art forms. (Hargis would publish a pamphlet titled “Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles.”)

Operation Midnight Ride catered to all those anxieties. “This is one of these key moments when you see these different strains working together out of hatred for JFK,” Matzko says. “The rallies bring together people who are united by what they are angry about. They’re united by what they’re against.”

While a wave of recent books have explored right-wing activity in the years leading to Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Operation Midnight Ride—and the response it provoked—has gone largely overlooked. This reconstruction of that galvanizing political journey, based on Hargis’ and Walker’s personal papers and on recordings made of their speeches on tour, offers an inside look at the conservative movement at a crucially formative point.

Hargis came by his religion and his politics at an early age. When he was 10, in 1935, his mother grew deathly ill, and he vowed that he would devote himself to God if he would spare her; she survived. At age 17, Hargis was ordained a minister by the Disciples of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination. He cut a burly figure—as an adult, he stood 6-foot-plus and weighed a jowly 270 or so pounds—which only accentuated his presence in the pulpit. His thundering voice and baleful rhetoric made him a natural for radio.

Hargis’ theology was premillennialist, awaiting the return of Christ to inaugurate a thousand years of peace. He saw in worldly conflicts reflections of Christ’s struggles against Satan. It was no stretch for him to equate communism with Satanic evil, and after he founded the Christian Crusade in 1947, his ministry focused increasingly on flamboyant anti-communism. Starting in 1953, for instance, Hargis and the New Jersey fundamentalist Carl McIntire made periodic trips to Central Europe, where they released a million balloons containing Bible quotations printed on paper strips, hoping the prevailing winds would carry them over the Iron Curtain. But after Hargis attacked the National Council of Churches as communist, the Disciples of Christ withdrew his ordination in 1957. By then his media ministry was a pulpit unto itself.

The steeple of the Oak Mountain Baptist Church is reflected in a rain puddle.
The steeple of the Oak Mountain Baptist Church is reflected in a rain puddle. (Kendrick Brinson)

Walker’s politics were rooted not in religion, but in hyperpatriotism. In resigning his Army commission, he said he “could no longer serve in uniform and be a collaborator with the release of United States sovereignty to the United Nations.” Later, at a hearing that Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina pushed for to probe the treatment of dissidents in the military, Walker declared, “There can be no coexistence on the battlefield.” He undercut his dignified officer’s bearing—he stood over six feet tall and was as lanky as Hargis was not—with halting and incoherent responses to the senators’ questions. But he did not harm his standing among his supporters when he blackened Washington Daily News reporter Thomas V. Kelly’s eye for asking a question Walker considered impertinent.

Walker’s welcome among the rightists in Dallas prompted him to run for governor of Texas in 1962, but he finished last among six candidates in the Democratic primary. He was undaunted: That fall, he traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, during the standoff between local officials and federal marshals working to integrate the state university. “We have been pushed around by the anti-Christ Supreme Court,” Walker told a Louisiana radio station. “It’s time to rise.”

On the Ole Miss campus, he took a position at the head of a mob whose members hurled stones and bottles at the marshals. For that, he was arrested for citing insurrection and held for a psychiatric examination; he said he’d been trying to keep the peace and was being persecuted because the Kennedy administration saw him as a threat. The exam found that he was capable of understanding the charges against him, but in the end there were none: A grand jury declined to indict him. Walker then sued the Associated Press in Texas and Louisiana for libel in its reporting from Oxford. Juries awarded him hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, but the Supreme Court reversed those decisions.

None of it deterred Hargis. He allowed that Walker had been ill-advised to travel to Mississippi “during this emotion-packed time,” but held that the legal action against him “smacks of dictatorship.” On January 22, 1963, the day after the grand jury declined to indict the former general, Hargis called him to pitch Operation Midnight Ride.

The idea was for a nightly passion play, enacted on a stage set with as many as 40 American flags. Hargis would speak first, then Walker, as the headliner—a total of two and a half hours, with no music. They would sell tickets at the door and pass an ice cream bucket for donations afterward, and then split the take between Hargis’ Christian Crusade and Friends of Walker, an organization consisting largely of the rotating cast of a half-dozen or so young ex-military men who lived at Walker’s home. Each speaker would keep the proceeds from sales of his own booklets, pamphlets and albums.

Old news stories and photographs of Billy James Hargis and Edwin Walker are laid out on a table at a Waffle House in Pelham, Alabama.
Old news stories and photographs of Billy James Hargis and Edwin Walker are laid out on a table at a Waffle House in Pelham, Alabama. (Kendrick Brinson)

Once Walker agreed, Hargis’ Christian Crusade machine whirred into action. Host committees secured the venues and promoted the rallies through paid advertising or volunteer-staffed phone banks. Christian Crusaders contacted the radio stations that carried Hargis’ broadcasts and local activist groups, many in the orbit of the John Birch Society. “Just make sure they are good patriotic Americans and not associated with rabid anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic activities,” Hargis wrote to local organizers. “This would, of course, serve to smear both General Walker and myself.”

The country’s coastal metropolises had seen major conservative rallies, including one at Madison Square Garden in 1962, but there had been no sustained effort to raise national awareness through rallies in smaller cities. That changed in Miami on February 27, 1963.

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Their tour opened with a few surprises—pleasant ones. First, Hargis and Walker drew 3,000 paying customers to the Dade Civic Auditorium on their inaugural stop. And they discovered a new villain to add to a cast that already included the United Nations, the national-security apparatus, universities, the federal bureaucracy, the Supreme Court and the mainline Protestant church.

Atlanta skyline
Clockwise from top left: the Atlanta skyline; a welcome to Georgia road sign; three crosses in Birmingham, Alabama. (Kendrick Brinson)

The two had agreed not to conduct press conferences, hoping to reserve their most quotable thoughts for their speeches. But the news media interest was so intense they changed plans and took questions from reporters in West Palm Beach.

One of the first came from Edith Haynie of the Palm Beach Post, who had covered the previous fall’s riots at Ole Miss. With the question of the federal role in desegregation still looming, she alluded to Walker’s differing roles in Oxford and in Little Rock and asked: “Which side will you be on this time?”

Walker exploded, saying it was “a classic example of a loaded question, young lady,” and cut the press conference short.

When Hargis and Walker took the stage that evening, the hotel ballroom’s 1,000 seats were almost filled. From behind the podium, Hargis spotted Haynie in the first row and locked eyes with her. As he told his audience of the drama of the morning’s press conference and came to the role of “that woman sitting here,” he jabbed a finger in her direction.

“That’s telling her, Billy!” came a voice from the audience. And so he told her, in a 35-minute diversion from his written remarks. “We never get fair reporting in newspapers,” he said. “They never tell what we say. They tell how we take up donations, and sell books, and pass the ice cream bucket for money...but they don’t tell what we say.”

Hargis received a standing ovation, and when Haynie did not join in, she was heckled again. “What’s the matter with that damn reporter?” someone hollered. “Can’t she stand up?”

That night, the ice cream bucket contained $2,907.91 in cash. From then on, Hargis and Walker scheduled press conferences in each city they visited and vilified local news organizations by name from the stage.

Hargis typically began with a passage from Ephesians, instructing his listeners to “put on the full armor of God...with the breastplate of righteousness in place.” The preacher would then promise to speak briefly “so that you can hear General Walker,” yet he often went on for another 100 minutes. As Hargis waved his hands, tapped his feet and mopped the sweat dramatically from his brow, the general sat in a chair to the podium’s left, his menthol cigarettes holstered and a blank look on his face. After Hargis’ showmanship, Walker, wooden and rambling, often proved a letdown.

Billy James Hargis
Billy James Hargis (left) and former Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker prepare to speak at a rally at East High School in Denver, Colorado, in March 1963. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

The two men, however, shared a penchant for hyperbole, fiction and slander. “The thing that’s wrong with America today is the spirit of anti-Christ in the fields of religion, education, politics,” Hargis said. He mocked “the sophisticated bunch of professors in the State Department,” which Walker called “full of traitors.” Across the federal bureaucracy, Hargis declared, “these agencies and administrators have conspired in and collaborated with a demoralizing, degrading and repulsive Satanic force.” “No man,” Walker proclaimed, can be “a Kennedy liberal and follow the teachings of Christ.”

Across Florida, the two men spoke of Cuba as an incipient threat to American security and, in those post-missile crisis days, an example of Kennedy’s fecklessness in confronting communism. Walker enjoyed laying out his strategy for a military assault on the island by the 82nd Airborne Division, where he once served as a deputy commander. Hargis said he was “amazed and sobered” by the political activity within the state’s Cuban exile community.

The two proved adept at calling like-minded celebrities up onto their stage. In Atlanta, it was the parents of John Birch himself, the American soldier and missionary who died in a confrontation with Chinese soldiers shortly after World War II ended and thus became known by some anti-communists as the first casualty of the Cold War. In Birmingham, their next stop, it was Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s aggressively segregationist police commissioner, who was running for mayor (and would lose to a more moderate segregationist, Albert Boutwell).

Birmingham’s Boutwell Auditorium
Clockwise from top left: empty seats at Birmingham’s Boutwell Auditorium; a microphone in the auditorium; a bronze eagle on the city’s Rainbow Viaduct. (Kendrick Brinson)

On March 12, they pulled into Greenville, South Carolina, where Bob Jones Jr., a member of the Christian Crusade board, invited them to speak at a daytime chapel service at the university he’d founded. Hargis declared that Bob Jones University delivered “the best education possible in a pro-Christian and pro-American university.” The school would later sacrifice its tax-exempt status to preserve its ban on interracial dating among its students.

At this point—only two weeks in—the FBI was tracking the tour. The bureau concluded that the Majority Citizens League, sponsor of the rally at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, was a front for the local Ku Klux Klan. Likewise, the NAACP—which Hargis considered communist and referred to as “the National Association for the Agitation of Colored People”—had staffers trying to determine the extent to which the tour was an organizing tool for white supremacists.

(Smithsonian Magazine)

As the tour pushed out of the South and into Ohio, protesters began to appear. In Columbus and Cincinnati, they were sparse and decorous. They could easily have been ignored, but Hargis was thrilled to have another target. “We don’t intend to be disturbed by a bunch of punks,” he told the crowd of about a thousand in Cincinnati. “We’ll not hesitate to press charges against anyone who causes trouble at this meeting.”

By March 22, in Des Moines, he claimed onstage that the NAACP was directing the pickets from New York and Washington, based on what an informant had told him—“We happen to have a friend, uh, who, uh—I won’t say any more but we have some inside information inside the NAACP.” He explained, “We were having too big of crowds across the country, and they hoped these pickets would discourage attendance. But instead of discouraging attendance, it’s helped our attendance, so that’s the reason I don’t mind their pickets at all.”

The crowd sizes fluctuated—2,500 in St. Louis, just 800 in Kansas City—and depended on the ability and ambition of the local host committee. In Denver, a late addition between Wichita and Oklahoma City, Hargis damned the local paper as the Denver Compost, to an approving roar within the East Denver High School auditorium. But when he saw that television cameras illuminated the seats while panning over them—potentially allowing viewers to identify members of the crowd of 1,200—he lashed out at the cameramen. “I said no lights on the crowd!” he yelled. “I told you that before! Don’t you speak the English language?”

Still, at the next night’s rally, in Oklahoma City, Hargis boasted, “There were nine groups picketing us last night. We hit bingo.”

Joe Alfano’s hand rests out the window
Joe Alfano’s hand rests out the window of his late father’s beloved 1955 Buick Super Riviera in Birmingham, Alabama. (Kendrick Brinson)

As Hargis and Walker moved west, the coalition of groups rallying to oppose them had expanded beyond the NAACP and AFL-CIO to include the Congress of Racial Equality, the Committee for Non-Violent Action and the Student Peace Union at Denver University—a harbinger of the activist coalition known as the New Left. The protests ensured them greater exposure and put flesh on the specter of liberalism they had had to conjure previously through rhetoric. Hargis had hoped that their April 3 finale, in Los Angeles, would be the “big crowning achievement of the entire month.” He couldn’t have been disappointed: The event drew by far the biggest crowd yet, filling the Shrine Auditorium with more than 6,000 people. He claimed there were 300 pickets outside, though the local press counted a hundred. Walker commemorated the tour’s end by leading his audience in “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

Distrust of the federal government, anti-communist fervor, evangelical Christianity—the Midnight Ride awakened passions that would unite them all.

The front of an old closed filling station on Pine Mountain Road
The front of an old closed filling station on Pine Mountain Road in Remlap, Alabama. (Kendrick Brinson)

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Walker arrived back in Dallas on April 8 to a home filled with drifts of fan mail and financial contributions. Two nights later he was sitting at a desk in his study, working on his income-tax return, when a bullet shattered his window and lodged in a wall just behind him, spraying metal shards into his arm. He grabbed his gun and went outside to look for the shooter, but found no one.

After midnight, Walker invited reporters in and showed off the bullet hole and his injury, joking that he deserved a Purple Heart. He jovially sipped a cup of coffee and said, “I’ve been saying the front was right here at home.”

It would take months for Walker to learn the identity of his would-be assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald. The Warren Commission, in identifying the avowed leftist as the man who killed President Kennedy that November, also determined that he had been stalking the fortress on Turtle Creek months before, while Walker was on the Midnight Ride.

Between notifying the police and summoning newspaper reporters, Walker called Hargis in Tulsa. Both men immediately recognized the value of a near-death experience.

“Billy,” Walker said, “let’s make another tour immediately.”

They did, for two weeks that May, on what they called Operation: Alert. They covered a diagonal from Seattle to Baton Rouge, but made less of a splash. Already, more-professional operatives were moving into the right-wing turf they had identified.

In 1964, Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination. He comported himself with a demeanor befitting a sitting senator, but his platform was similar to the Midnight Ride’s. Yet before the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, his team made clear that Hargis and Walker would not be welcome. Hargis stayed away. “The best I can do for Barry Goldwater right now,” he said, “is to go to Europe.” Walker paid repeated visits to the Texas delegation’s hotel, but he never secured a ticket to the convention hall.

Hollywood Walk
From top: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; the beach in Santa Monica; a building in downtown Los Angeles. (Kendrick Brinson)

Even without Walker and Hargis around, Goldwater faced enormous odds: The Kennedy assassination—in Dallas, that hub of hard-right activity—had cast a pall over extremist rhetoric and policies. He lost to President Lyndon Johnson by more than 22 percentage points, one of the bigger popular-vote margins in the 20th century.* That loss “amounted to a one-two punch,” says Kevin Kruse, a Princeton University historian who specializes in mid-century conservatism. “Far-right politics suddenly seemed less respectable in society and less powerful in politics.”

But not for long. Johnson’s Great Society program and civil rights legislation created a backlash. The people Hargis called his “lonely patriots” became part of the “silent majority” that Richard Nixon credited for his victory in 1968. And they handed Ronald Reagan, who also borrowed from the Hargis-Walker rhetorical playbook, two presidential terms. Reagan, in bringing “a common-sense Midwestern feel to it, and a sunny Southern California optimism,” exorcised whatever traces remained of the rawness of the Midnight Ride, says Edward Miller, a Northeastern University historian and author of Nut Country, which examines Dallas’ right-wing scene in the 1960s.

By then, Hargis and Walker were anathema to their political heirs—because of separate sex scandals. In February 1976, Time reported that Hargis had been intimate with five students at a Bible college he’d founded in Tulsa. The five included three men, plus another man and a woman whose wedding Hargis had officiated. “On the honeymoon, the groom and his bride discovered that both of them had slept with Hargis,” the magazine said. Hargis denied the accusations, and he was not charged, but he was forced to resign as president of the college.

The Ferris wheel and roller coaster
The Ferris wheel and roller coaster at Pacific Pier Park in Santa Monica, California. (Kendrick Brinson)

In June of that year, Walker was arrested on public lewdness charges after making sexual advances to a plainclothes police officer he had followed into a Dallas park men’s room. He pleaded no contest and was fined $1,000.

When Walker died in 1993, at age 83, of lung disease, Hargis paid tribute on the television program that remained his primary soapbox. “My heart is sad today. I lost one of my best friends,” he said from the log chapel on the farm he’d moved to in the Missouri Ozarks. The preacher, who would live until 2004, when he was felled by Alzheimer’s disease at age 79, showed his viewers a photograph of him and Walker onstage during the Midnight Ride and said: “Nothing in my 50-year career of standing up for Christ and fighting satanic Communism equaled the success of that undertaking.”

*Editor's Note, September 14, 2018: An earlier version of this story stated that Barry Goldwater lost to Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. By 1964, Johnson had become the sitting president after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

About the Author: Kendrick Brinson is a Los Angeles-based photographer. Read more articles from Kendrick Brinson
About the Author: Sasha Issenberg is a journalist and author of several books, including The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Read more articles from Sasha Issenberg