Political Animal


April 20, 2012 4:04 PM Southern Democrats and Civil Rights

By Ed Kilgore

Via Jonathan Bernstein at Ten Miles Square, I ran across this meditation from Andrew Sullivan:

I cannot help but think of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and how its legacy still poisons our politics. For a very long time, the deep cultural divide in this country was in part managed by the Democratic party. Its alliance of Southern conservatives and Northeastern liberals - perhaps exemplified by the Kennedy-Johnson ticket - gave what we now call parts of red and blue America a joint incentive to work out their differences through a common partisan affiliation. The had a fellowship that facilitated compromise. A less coherent ideological party structure actually created a more coherent political debate. I wonder if civil rights legislation would ever have been achieved without this.

This is an interesting departure from the usual “centrist” lament about the death of bipartisanship, which often invokes the cross-party coaliton that enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a prime exhibit of a lost paradise of civility.

But if civil rights legislation is the key measure of progress, I’m afraid its enactment is not a particularly good data point for the “management” of interregional conflict by the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats voted against the 1964 law by a margin of 87-7 in the House and 20-1 in the Senate (Ralph Yarborough of Texas being the only dissenter). Only when the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 (supported by only four of seventeen Senate Democrats from the South) emancipated African-American voters, while Republicans successfully built a regional movement attracting southern segregationists, did the Democratic Party in the South move quickly towards becoming a biracial coalition. But that was also the process which was central to the realignment of the two parties towards the ideologically coherent (more or less) coalitions they are today.

In one limited respect, though, Andrew’s right about this: it was the desire of southern Democrats in the Senate (and most particularly their chieftain, Richard Russell) to promote Lyndon Johnson’s national career that led them to allow him to shepherd to enactment the (toothless) Civil Rights Act of 1957, without which LBJ would probably not have been (marginally) acceptable as a running-mate for Kennedy in 1960 (Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate devotes hundreds of pages to this saga). Russell and other southern Democrats, however, miscalculated that ol’ Lyndon would never champion a real civil rights bill, and LBJ was widely branded a Judas in the South for his actions in 1964. This all paved the way for Nixon’s “southern strategy,” of course, but the Tricky One was simply harvesting very low-hanging fruit.

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.


  • Ken D. on April 20, 2012 4:19 PM:

    Put another way, could the southern power structure, then Dixiecrats and now Republicans, ever been consistent coalition partners with enfranchised southern African-Americans? I doubt it very much. We are dealing with some fundamental historical trends here, not tactical choices.

  • BillFromPA on April 20, 2012 4:22 PM:

    When this legislation was passed there were actually numerous LIBERAL Republicans who voted with LIBERAL Democrats, with some moderates from each party in the mix. Civil rights was never a Dem vs GOP thing, it was a Lib/Mod vs Conservative split. It only appears to us now that it's a D vs R thing beacuse the repugs have long since driven off their libs and the mods are soon to join them. Looked at another way, in 1865 the GOP was the party of Lincoln, 1995 it had become the party of Jefferson Davis.

  • Peter C on April 20, 2012 4:43 PM:

    You are who you choose to stand with.

    I'm glad the racists, the misogynists, the homophobes, and the religious zealots are all on their side. It is disgusting that it has been an intentional strategic choice on the part of the Republican party that made it this way. It is appalling that they are still considered respectable in polite society.

  • bobbo on April 20, 2012 5:01 PM:

    The southern Democrats didn't really miscalculate; they probably would have been right about Johnson not fighting for a real civil rights bill had Kennedy not been assassinated.

  • C.S. on April 20, 2012 5:59 PM:

    Russell and other southern Democrats, however, miscalculated that olí Lyndon would never champion a real civil rights bill . . .

    Who was it that said if you can't take people's money and then f*&k 'em, you've got no business being in politics?

    Also, too -- LBJ rokks.

  • C.S. on April 20, 2012 6:03 PM:

    . . . they probably would have been right about Johnson not fighting for a real civil rights bill had Kennedy not been assassinated.

    Well, yeah, because in that circumstance he would have been the Vice President, and wouldn't have had much of a say in the matter, and Kennedy sure as hell wasn't going to fight for it. Other than that . . . huh?

  • skeptonomist on April 20, 2012 6:37 PM:

    Before the civil-rights revolution, southern Democrats were economically progressive, or at least anti-Wall-Street. Southerners were prominent in the New Deal (how about Glass and Steagall). So in the 60's and later northern Republicans switched on racism and southern Democrats (now Republicans) switched on economic issues. This huge realignment was not just the work of Johnson; it was Truman's integration of the civil service and armed forces which caused Strom Thurmond to bolt; and although Kennedy did little to get his civil-rights agenda passed it marked a real change in the national Democratic party objectives. Nixon played a small part in all this. Thurmond had long before moved to the Republican party.

  • Anonymous on April 20, 2012 7:10 PM:

    C.S. on April 20, 2012 6:03 PM: Kennedy sure as hell wasn't going to fight for it.

    I don't have a filter between my brain and mouth, but what crap are you spewing out and where do you find your fiction?
    C.S. You is a menace to society; a not so smart( nice version) person talking like they KNOW what they are talking about.

    Johnson pursued the Civil Rights act in "honor" of Kennedy's legacy towards civil rights. He knew it was the death of the (RACIST) Democratic Party of the South, be he did it willingly to continue what Kennedy wanted.

    Next quote from article:

    "Southern Democrats voted against the 1964 law by a margin of 87-7 in the House and 20-1 in the Senate (Ralph Yarborough of Texas being the only dissenter). Only when the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 (supported by only four of seventeen Senate Democrats from the South)"

    In the November election, the Southern Democrats lost 4 Senate seats( the nerve of no segregation)immediately, and this led the Party of Lincoln to change from a moderate party as late as 1966 to the Racist Party it is today. Nixon knew politics, and Nixon knew the political power of racism even more

    C.S. I would like to have to apologize if I am wrong, but I think the chances are slim and none, and Slim just left town! BOING!

  • DKDC on April 20, 2012 9:12 PM:

    The article provides some interesting historical context. Of course the next 10 years will usher in another historic change in the republican party. Demographics do not favor the republicans in the long-term and it's going to be increasingly difficult to paper over the internal struggle between the old-guard, Wall Street republicans and the insurgent movement conservatives.

    There will be another major political re-alignment in the next 10 years.

  • John Herbison on April 21, 2012 3:54 AM:

    Anonymous, which four Southern Democratic senators lost seats in the November 1966 election?

    Ross Bass, who had been elected in 1964 to fill the unexpired term of the late Estes Kefauver, lost a Democratic primary election in August of 1966 to Governor Frank Clement, who was defeated in November by Howard Baker, Jr.

    Strom Thurmond, who had been previously elected as a Democrat, changed his party affiliation during 1964 and was re-elected as a Republican in 1966.

    It looks like Slim has returned to town.

  • Gaius Gracchus on April 21, 2012 8:40 AM:

    Anon, it is a stark but simple fact that JFK would not have pushed through civil rights. It was not his issue.

    As to LBJ, he used JFK's legacy for a lot of things......

  • esaud on April 21, 2012 8:55 AM:

    Peter C. - I agree that there is no person or group that is off limits to the Republican party. This weeks ugly reminder was Ted Nugent's eliminationist rant. Nugent is on the board of the NRA, was probably paid handsomely (he got $50K last year). Romney sought out his endorsement, which Tagg though was way cool. Talk about odious. And our brain-dead media was all a-titter about Ann Romney's faux outrage.

    The problem is, though, that someone like Nugent should not be on any major political party's endorsement list. In other countries, conservative parties just would not go there. It was Nixon who crossed the line of decency here and the Republican party never looked back.