Reviewed by Gregg Hilton
This is an important and thought provoking book. The author is a professor of history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and her effort resulted in the Harry Truman Book Award from the Truman Presidential Library. She is a liberal but there is no bias in her account of this period.
The Dixiecrats (or southern Democrats) were predominantly conservative, but the movement also included many racists. She accurately quotes them and that was enough to prove her point. Her account begins with Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, but as she readily acknowledges, the Democratic Party’s Solid South really began with the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
The Solid South was based on segregation and it was a time when whites totally controlled the regions Democratic Party. There was no two party system, and all elections were focused on Democratic primaries. There were moderates and some southern liberals such as former Senators J. William Fulbright (D-AR), Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN), Lister Hill (D-AL) and Hugo Black (D-AL), but they all went along with segregation. Several of the lawmakers who refused to sign the pro-segregation Southern Manifesto were later defeated in Democratic primaries.
Democrats not only won the South, but they carried it by huge majorities. It was not unusual for them to receive over 80% of the vote in what was called the cotton South or deep South.
The first break in the Solid South was when Missouri voted for Republican Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. President Warren Harding won Missouri and Maryland in 1920 and Calvin Coolidge would also win the same two border states plus Kentucky in 1924.
Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968 were both able to carry Virginia, Tennessee and Florida. Nevertheless, these were small inroads, and the cotton South was similar to today’s San Francisco, a Democratic stronghold that Republicans would not touch and all elections were decided in the primary.
Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats
The focal point of this book is the 1948 campaign when President Harry Truman’s campaign had to contend with the Dixiecrat revolt. A mild civil rights plank was adopted at the Democratic convention and the southern states walked out. They knew their heyday would be over if blacks were given the right to vote, and they would not agree to any civil rights compromise.
They formed the “States’ Rights Democratic Party” and the “effort forced many Dixiecrats to begin to think about themselves in a new way.” Their convention nominated Gov. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) for president and Gov. Fielding Wright (D-MS) as his running mate. They carried four states and won 39 electoral votes. Many readers will be surprised in reading the account of Thurmond’s political career. He took office in 1946 and was then regarded as a moderate. The author says:
Thurmond’s role in the campaign of 1948 was, in the final analysis, both a blessing and a curse for the Dixiecrats. . . The revolt took definite shape in February after Harry Truman delivered his civil rights address to Congress. . . The Southerners had long opposed the New Deal. . .
They sought to deny Truman victory and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where they could then barter and trade for a compromise candidate. They would have demonstrated their power and would have recaptured the South’s preeminent position within the Democratic Party. . . Thurmond was in many ways an odd fit with the other Dixiecrats. . .
Thurmond’s gubernatorial politics and policies characterize him as a moderate. His 1946 gubernatorial campaign had been remarkably free of racist appeals, and he consistently urged abolition of the state’s poll tax. . . The Dixiecrat platform advocated ‘constitutional government and individual liberty,’ but Thurmond had no intention in carrying the protest beyond the election and certainly had no intention of creating a third party. . .Thurmond moved quickly to separate himself from the Dixiecrats after November 1948. Thurmond kept his distance. With Thurmond effectively gone and with no one to take his place at the head of the group, the organization quietly folded.
By 1950 the Dixiecrat party was no longer a factor, and the end of the Solid South came in the 1960’s. However, Democrats would continue to be a strong regional party. They elected three southern Democrats to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson (1964), Jimmy Cater (1976) and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996). Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee won the popular vote in 2000, and Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) was the 2004 vice presidential nominee. In 2008, Barack Obama won Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.
When The Democratic Party Ruled The South
In 1956, 13 southern states elected more Democrats to the House of Representatives than all the other states combined. There were 234 House Democrats, and 134 of them were from the South. These Democrats were far more conservative than today’s Blue Dogs and they were rarely defeated for re-election. The Southerners were well known for being able to acquire great seniority. Eight of the fifteen members of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 1956 were southern Democrats.
1956 was also the year of the Southern Manifesto, which was a protest against the 1954 Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. Board of Education) desegregating public education. It was signed by 99 Democrats and two Republicans. It stated:
The original Constitution does not mention education. Neither does the 14th Amendment nor any other amendment. The debates preceding the submission of the 14th Amendment clearly show that there was no intent that it should affect the system of education maintained by the States.
This helps explain why Harlem’s black Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), endorsed the re-election of a Republican President that year, and why Dwight Eisenhower was able to receive 34% of the black vote in 1956. The GOP never again came close to achieving that percentage.
Liberals made significant gains in 1958, but upon his election in 1960, John F. Kennedy still had to contend with 110 conservative Southern Democrats. That is the reason there was no progress on civil rights while he was in the White House. Kennedy voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and Rev. Martin Luther King made no endorsement in the 1960 campaign.
The South had enormous power in the Democratic Party, and if Kennedy had pushed for civil rights in 1961 he felt his other domestic initiatives would fail. JFK was afraid of a southern backlash if he meet with the King during the campaign, and concocted a story that he ran into him accidentally. Kennedy delayed taking action on civil rights until the demonstrations of 1962 and 1963 dominated the news media.
The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act
The death knell of the Democratic Solid South was passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act he said to aide Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” It should be noted, that as a percentage, far more Republicans than Democrats supported civil rights legislation.
The 1964 GOP presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater (AZ), was the first Republican to win the cotton South. He carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Goldwater voted in favor of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, as well as the 24th Amendment banning the poll tax, but he is best remember for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That is a major reason he carried those states.
He never apologized for his position, and many blacks never forgave the Republican Party. In 1968, Gov. George Wallace (D-AL) ran as a third party candidate and carried the same states as Goldwater but added Arkansas and narrowly lost South Carolina to Richard Nixon.
In 1965, every Senate Republican was in favor of the Voting Rights Act, except their only southern member. Thurmond had switched parties months earlier, and the impact of the Voting Rights Act was immediate. Black registration soared and in 1966 arch segregationists such as Rep. Howard W. Smith (D-VA) were defeated for renomination.
He was Chairman of the Rules Committee for a dozen years where he diligently worked to stop civil rights legislation. In his own words, Smith never believed black people had equal intelligence, education or social attainments as whites.
How The South Changed
The South elected no black Democrats in 1956 (they would have to wait until 1972), and just 11 Republicans. The ranks of the 134 white Southern Democratic Congressmen of that era have now been reduced to 19 lawmakers.
- Today there are no white Democrats in the House from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or South Carolina, and just one white Democrat is a member of the delegations from Georgia, Missouri and Arkansas.
- Those 11 Republican Congressmen of 1956 have grown to 104 today.
- Georgia elected blatantly segregationist Democratic governors such as Eugene Talmadge and Lester Maddox, and it added the Confederate emblem to its state flag in the 1950s. There were no Republicans in the 1956 Georgia legislature, but now the GOP holds 114 of 180 House seats. Only three Democrats in the state legislature today represent rural districts. There are five Georgia Democratic Congressmen, four blacks and one white.
- The Civil War began at Fort Sumter which is in South Carolina’s first Congressional district. One of the candidates last year was Thurmond’s son Paul who was born three decades after the Dixiecrat campaign. He grew up in the New South and was well qualified, but was defeated in a GOP primary landslide by now Rep. Tim Scott. Scott and Allen West (FL) became the first black Republicans since Reconstruction to be elected to the House.
- Florida also has a new black GOP Lt. Governor, Jennifer Carroll.
- South Carolina and Louisiana have GOP Governors whose parents were born in India. When South Carolina State Senator Jake Knotts (R) made what was considered a racist comment last year, he was censured by the state’s Republican Party.
- The GOP had only two state representatives in Texas in 1956, but now they have super majorities in both chambers.
- Today’s South also has 19 black and 3 hispanic Democratic Congressmen. The black and hispanic southern Democrats outnumber their white Democratic colleagues.
- The change is also seen in the six New England states. Today there are 22 Congressman representing those states. In 1956, 18 of them were Republicans, and in the last Congress the GOP was at zero.
Jimmy Carter carried all of the southern states except Virginia in 1976, and was the last Democratic candidate to receive as much as 45% of the white vote. The dramtic fall off has been especially apparent among working class whites throughout the nation.
John Kerry and Barack Obama were unable to win even 40% of the white vote, and in 2010 white voters preferred Republicans by a 2 to 1 margin. In the South, Democrats won just 23% of white vote.
A New South replaced the segregation era decades ago, and memories of the Dixiecrats are fading. This is a compelling story of how Democratic presidential candidates in major sections of the cotton South went from 95% of the vote to 35%, and it is a well written book which is worth reading.