Frederickson situates the Dixiecrat movement within the tumultuous social and economic milieu of the 1930s and 1940s South, tracing the struggles between conservative and liberal Democrats over the future direction of the region. Enriching her sweeping political narrative with detailed coverage of local activity in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina--the flashpoints of the Dixiecrat campaign--she shows that, even without upsetting Truman in 1948, the Dixiecrats forever altered politics in the South. By severing the traditional southern allegiance to the national Democratic Party in presidential elections, the Dixiecrats helped forge the way for the rise of the Republican Party in the region.
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The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968
By Kari Frederickson
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2001 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionIn the light of history, the states' rights campaign of 1948 can be seen as an outgrowth of the thinking of the rednecks, the coonasses, and the hillbillies. But it was acceptable to the political elite as well. -J. Oliver Emmerich, Dixiecrat speech writer and publisher, McComb Enterprise-Journal
On April 8, 1996, ninety-three-year-old Strom Thurmond formally announced his candidacy for an unprecedented seventh term as U.S. senator from South Carolina. The state's "living legend" vowed to continue his fight for the cornerstones of conservatism: a strong military, a balanced budget, and a revamped welfare system. "I shall not give up on our mission to right the 40-year wrongs of liberalism," he declared. Despite his popularity, many South Carolinians doubted whether the senior senator was physically up to the task of another term. Other voters chafed at the thought of turning out the venerable old gentleman. For those who had achieved voting age since the mid-1950s, Thurmond had represented them their whole lives.
Just about anyone you meet in South Carolina, it seems, has a personal anecdote about the senator or can tell you about someone who has received prompt assistance on a thorny bureaucratic matter from Thurmond's legendary staff. One story in particular illustrates the extensive reach of Thurmond's office. A friend recently told me of the events surrounding the death of her grandfather, a longtime South Carolina politician, who had passed away late one night. At 6:00 a.m., barely an hour after the ambulance had taken the body away and before all immediate family members had been notified, her grandmother received a call of condolence from Senator Thurmond. "How he found out about granddaddy, we never knew," my friend exclaimed. "It wasn't even daylight yet. It was like a call from God." It is hardly surprising, then, that in this conservative state with its reverence for tradition, folks should shudder at the thought of electing a new senator. By excelling at constituent contact and through sheer longevity, Thurmond has personalized the office of U.S. senator to the point where the two seem inseparable. He has become an institution.
It took Strom Thurmond almost fifty years to liberate himself from the limitations of traditional partisan politics. Along the way, he played a pivotal role in the political transformation of the South. Raised a Democrat in the one-party South, young Thurmond developed an early interest in politics, often tagging along with his father to hear rabble-rousing stump speakers in the town squares of Edgefield County. As an ambitious state legislator, Thurmond strongly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, although like many southern Democrats, he grew impatient with what he considered the more radical aspects of the later New Deal. Thurmond won election as governor in 1946 as a moderately liberal Democrat promoting bureaucratic efficiency and industrial development. As the state's chief executive, he advocated state repeal of the poll tax and moved swiftly in 1947 to use state machinery to apprehend and prosecute a lynch mob.
Not oblivious to the escalating racial tensions in his region, Thurmond and others like him believed the South's myriad of problems to be, at heart, economic. However, unlike organizations such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) and the Southern Regional Council, which linked economic and racial justice and hoped to achieve both through a combination of labor union organization and black voter registration, Thurmond advocated new industry and economic growth as the key to regional stability. The South, Thurmond argued, had long been held in an unequal, colonial status by the northern economic colossus, and only through economic parity could the region prosper and achieve racial harmony. Soon Thurmond's liberalism, based on a prodevelopment philosophy, had diverged from the mainstream of the national Democratic Party. The South Carolina governor counted himself among a growing number of disgruntled southern Democrats who felt increasingly uncomfortable within a national party that championed the power of the state to redress grievances and ensure economic and racial justice.
Tensions came to a head in 1948 when, in an unprecedented move, President Harry Truman placed himself squarely behind civil rights legislation. Truman advocated federal protection against lynching, anti-poll tax legislation, the establishment of the permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), and the prohibition of segregation in interstate transportation. For the first time since Reconstruction, the status of African Americans had become a national issue. Many white southerners believed these measures signaled the beginning of an insidious campaign to destroy cherished regional "customs and institutions."
Hoping to stem this progressive tide and recover their former preeminent position within the national party ranks, a group of disgruntled southern Democrats formed the States' Rights Democratic Party and chose Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Although the new party-soon nicknamed the Dixiecrats-was primarily a protest vehicle, it was not intended to be merely symbolic; the goal of the States' Rights Democrats was to upset the reelection bid of Harry Truman. By capturing the 127 electoral votes of the (historically) Solid South, they felt they could prevent either major party candidate from winning a majority, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives. In the House the Dixiecrats sought to exact concessions favorable to the South, but this was not to be. The Dixiecrats won only four southern states-South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama-and 39 electoral votes. They failed to alter the outcome of the election and the future course of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, although voters across the South did not rally en masse behind the Dixiecrat banner, the election signified an important moment in southern politics.
When political scientist V. O. Key analyzed southern politics in the late 1940s, the perverse turn-of-the-century political developments and institutions-disfranchisement, malapportionment, one-partyism, and the complex structure of Jim Crow-remained in place. Yet, Key argued, there were growing doubts about the future course of southern politics. The New Deal had sharpened class lines in the region's politics; the depression had dealt a severe blow to the traditional system of plantation agriculture, swelling the stream of black migrants north; and the war had greatly stimulated and diversified the southern economy. Even more important, in the short run, were the emergence of civil rights as an issue in national politics, the identification of the Democratic Party with that issue, and the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948. While Key stressed the importance of the presence of blacks in the South on the development of southern politics, he argued that certain socioeconomic trends would "probably ... further free [the region] from the effects of the Negro in its politics." Key predicted the formation of a coalition between southern blacks and white southern liberals that would lead to the gradual assimilation of blacks into political life and the eventual triumph over southern conservatism. According to Key and other contemporary chroniclers, the forces of racial reaction were on the defensive. The Dixiecrat movement had failed to raise the race issue in a "compelling manner," and this failure signified the end of racism as a potent regional political weapon. "Unpleasant as all this was," noted Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, in the aftermath of the 1948 election, "the Dixiecrats inadvertently performed a great service for the South by demonstrating that the race issue is no longer a certain ticket to public office for any demagogue who cares to use it."
Later historians of southern politics appropriately identified the important national political implications of the Dixiecrat bolt. The Dixiecrat defection marked the exit of the South from the New Deal coalition and the reorientation of the national party toward its more liberal wing. By breaking with the Democratic Party, the Dixiecrat movement demonstrated to conservative southerners that allegiance to one party was neither necessary nor beneficial and thus served as the crossover point for many southern voters in their move from the Democratic to the Republican column. The election of 1948, therefore, marked the beginning, however tentative, of the two-party South and the region's political transition from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold, a process not completed until 1968. While these later syntheses are invaluable in identifying a singular moment in a major political transition, they nevertheless relegate the Dixiecrats to a page or two. They correctly identify an important historic shift in conservative southern political loyalty, yet they talk about southern political life as if it existed in a vacuum, ignoring completely the very difficult, start-and-stop nature of the process of political change. It is tempting to read back into history, to recognize the South's transition from a majority Democratic to a majority Republican region, to note Strom Thurmond's high-profile party switch in 1964, and to draw a straight line back to the Dixiecrats. But from the vantage point of the 1940s, we see only uncertainty and confusion. Only by immersing ourselves in the tumultuous events of the New Deal and postwar era can we begin to understand the meaning of the revolt for the people who staged it.
Historian Numan Bartley, in his seminal work on the rise of massive resistance organizations following the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education and in his recent major synthesis of the history of the South since World War II, draws important ideological connections between the Dixiecrats and anti-civil rights organizations in the 1950s. He further emphasizes the failure of the Dixiecrats to commit the South to political independence, thus underlining the persistence of New Deal political divisions in the region. While I do not necessarily dispute Bartley's conclusions, his treatment of the Dixiecrats, situated as they are within large, sweeping narratives, begins in 1948, thus highlighting the "flash-in-the-pan" quality of a political movement whose roots ran deeper and whose impact was more lasting.
The Dixiecrats were a reactionary protest organization comprised of economically conservative, segregationist southern Democrats who sought to reclaim their former prestige and ideological prominence in a party that had moved away from them. As political scientist Alexander Heard stated in his 1952 study of the political South, the Dixiecrats' strength was confined to a sector of the region. The Dixiecrat movement was primarily a revolt of the Black Belt, those counties that contained the region's rich agricultural lands and large-scale plantation agriculture, the heart of the antebellum plantation South and home to the opponents of populism. The Black Belt also included those counties in which blacks outnumbered whites. Not surprisingly, maintenance of white supremacy was the area's primary political concern. Following the defeat of the populists, the Black Belt factions within state governments succeeded in disfranchising black voters, diluting the potency of political dissent from poor whites, and enforcing the region's attachment to the Democratic Party. Two-party competition was anathema to Black Belt whites; it would have meant an appeal to black voters and possibly, as some feared, black rule. The ability of whites in the Black Belt to enforce regional conformity on the race issue in national politics became the South's best protection against federal interference in racial matters.
The maintenance of white supremacy and the threat of federal civil rights legislation to destroy that system was central to the formation and program of the States' Rights Democrats. The southern protest, however, was also a response to mounting agitation for racial and economic democracy at the local level. The Dixiecrats arose from and operated within a rapidly changing socioeconomic milieu stimulated by New Deal legislation and transformations brought on by World War II. Scholars recently have begun to devote more attention to the "generation before the Civil Rights Movement," those white and black southerners who in the 1930s and 1940s, energized by the promise of New Deal liberalism, created new organizations and political alliances to promote social and economic change in the South. But just as economic, social, and political change in the years before Brown came too slowly for these groups, it came too quickly for others. For Black Belt elites, maintenance of the racial hierarchy and their own economic privilege-in particular, access to and control over natural resources and domination of a captive, low-wage labor force-were intimately intertwined. For decades following the Civil War, the southern economy had existed in isolation, cut off from the national economic mainstream, free from threats to low local wages and labor discipline. New Deal programs initiated transformations that challenged the economic hegemony and control of the planter and industrial elites. Eager to feed from the rich trough of federal agricultural programs, planters were unwittingly complicit in the breakdown of the plantation system. They often refused to distribute crop reduction payments to sharecroppers and share tenants, thus effectively dislodging them from the plantation system and turning them, to borrow historian Gavin Wright's phrase, "into footloose wage laborers." The war, in turn, created new economic opportunities for these workers no longer tied to the land. Labor shortages in agriculture during the war and into the late 1940s were acute. In addition, war also stirred a new race consciousness among southern blacks that frightened many southern whites.
Agricultural elites were not the only ones disturbed by economic developments of the period. The New Deal's social welfare policies, wages and hours legislation, and protection for labor unions facilitated an alliance of white Black Belt and industrial leaders who shared a common conservative viewpoint. In addition to planters, the Dixiecrats attracted, according to one contemporary source, the "upper crust of mill owners, oil men, ... bankers [and] lawyers ... who might have felt more comfortable voting Republican." Thomas Sancton, writing for the Nation, noted that "in general the [Dixiecrats] are supported by all the investing and managing communities, from the Southern industrial metropolis to Old Man Johnson's 'furnish' store at the unnamed crossroads." Men like Mississippi Delta planter Walter Sillers, Birmingham corporation lawyer Frank Dixon, Charlotte textile magazine publisher David C. Clark, and Louisiana oil and phosphate tycoon Leander Perez joined hands in common cause in an attempt to block what they termed federal interference into the rights of the states and of property owners.
"Local control"-racial and economic-became the catch phrase of the conservative elite. The Dixiecrats reserved their strongest criticism for the proposed permanent FEPC, which would outlaw discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. To them, the FEPC violated every concept of the right of employers under the Constitution because it would remove from them decisions regarding hiring and firing and, instead, would dispatch a veritable army of federal agents throughout the South to ensure that blacks were employed in every enterprise. Out on the stump, Dixiecrat supporters regularly distorted the goals of the FEPC, equating fair hiring practices with racial quotas.
In denouncing the FEPC and other civil rights measures, the States' Rights Democrats had begun to articulate a critique of the expanding liberal state increasingly responsive to interest groups such as organized labor and African Americans. Their condemnation of New Deal liberalism gained power when framed in the new and powerful language of Cold War anticommunism. States' Rights leaders warned of the possibility of a "remote, distant, mysterious" government "beyond the comprehension of the people themselves." Presidential candidate Thurmond warned of a "federal police state, directed from Washington, [that] would force life on each hamlet in America to conform to a Washington patter." "American" principles were the right to "local self-government"; failure to fight for states' rights would endanger "the most precious of all human rights-the right to control and govern ourselves at home, the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Conflict arose when the institution that had protected those principles-the national Democratic Party-began to threaten them instead. Thurmond and the Dixiecrats represented a reaction to the modern welfare state that over time would reach a broader audience frightened by school desegregation decisions, fair housing laws, and race riots and eventually give rise to the backlash led by George Wallace and to the growth of the Republican Party in the South.
Excerpted from The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968 by Kari Frederickson Copyright © 2001 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Challenging the Laws of Nature: The New Deal and Southern Politics
Chapter 2. Drawing the Color Line: World War II, Race, and the South's Political Crucible
Chapter 3. Out of the Bag?: The Search for Southern Unity
Chapter 4. Setting the Postwar Agenda: Civil Rights, States' Rights, and the Tale of Two Conventions
Chapter 5. The Dixiecrat Presidential Campaign
Chapter 6. The Cause Lost: The Decline of the Dixiecrat Movement, 1949-1950
Chapter 7. Cut Free from the Moorings: Presidential Politics in the South in the 1950s and 1960s
What People are Saying About This
A fine example of the 'new' southern political history. . . . Frederickson offers a well-researched, eloquent, and absorbing account of political failure and change, one that contributes greatly to our understanding of the often ironic nature of southern political life in the mid-twentieth century.Journal of Southern History
A satisfying read.Journal of American History
Frederickson excels at showing how both race and economic issues influenced the Dixiecrat movement.Gulf South Historical Review
Frederickson's book makes several important contributions to our understanding of post-World War II politics in the South. . . . As a result, we have a clearer idea of why southerners votedor did not votefor Thurmond and Wright.American Historical Review
A lively and perceptive account.The Weekly Standard
Excellent, marked by superb research and sparkling prose.Choice
In this compelling study of the 1948 'Dixiecrat Revolt,' Kari Frederickson recovers a critical chapter in American political history. Her book offers fresh insight into how the politics of states' rights and white supremacy transformed southern and national politics in the middle decades of the twentieth century.Patricia Sullivan, author of Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era