Political Animal


May 23, 2012 3:08 PM Civil Rights Revisionism

By Ed Kilgore

National Review’s current cover story, by Kevin Williamson, claims to expose the “outright lie” that the two major parties “switched roles” on civil rights for African-Americans during the 1960s. It is in fact a pretty audacious piece of revisionist history that combines an over-simplified “revelation” of pre-1960s Democratic hostility towards or indifference to civil rights (which no one, to my knowledge, has ever denied) with a twisted take on what both parties were doing in 1964—all in the service of the strange, frantic conservative effort to project liberal charges of contemporary racism onto liberals themselves.

Jonathan Chait and (at Ten Miles Square) Jonathan Bernstein have already written extensive refutations of Williamson’s abuse of the historical record. Bernstein notes that Williamson’s generalizations about Democrats ignore the support for civil rights among non-southern Democrats that grew steadily from the New Deal (remember how much trouble Eleanor Roosevelt’s outspokenness on the subject caused her husband?) and Fair Deal (remember the 1948 Convention when a civil rights plank touched off the Dixiecrat movement that nearly derailed Harry Truman’s re-election?) on and eventually reached critical mass in the early 1960s. Chait provides this excellent summary of the “mainstream” view of the subject and Williamson’s unsuccesful revision:

The mainstream, and correct, history of the politics of civil rights is as follows. Southern white supremacy operated out of the Democratic Party beginning in the nineteenth century, but the party began attracting northern liberals, including African-Americans, into an ideologically cumbersome coalition. Over time the liberals prevailed, forcing the Democratic Party to support civil rights, and driving conservative (and especially southern) whites out, where they realigned with the Republican Party.
Williamson crafts a tale in which the Republican Party is and always has been the greatest friend the civil rights cause ever had. The Republican takeover of the white South had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights, the revisionist case proclaims, except insofar as white Southerners supported Republicans because they were more pro-civil rights.

It’s this last argument by Williamson that I most want to comment on. Prior to 1964, southern white Republicans were a hardy minority built on the Mountain Republicanism of regions that had opposed the Confederacy and middle-class business-oriented city-dwellers. While neither faction was loudly racist, nor were they champions of civil rights, either. Not all Democrats were virulently racist, but the virulent racists were all Democrats. As V.O. Key demonstrated in his classic study, Southern Politics, the most race-sensitive white southerners, centered in the Black Belt regions of the Deep South, stuck with the White Man’s Party even as other southerners defected to the GOP in 1920 (over Prohibition) and 1928 (over Prohibition and Al Smith’s Catholicism). In 1948, these same racists heavily defected to the Dixiecrats in a protest against the national Party’s growing commitment to civil rights. They mostly returned to the Democrats after that uprising, until 1964, when they voted almost universally for Barry Goldwater, purely and simply because Goldwater had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Four years later most of them voted for the race-centered candidacy of George Wallace, and four years after that just about every one of them voted for Richard Nixon. These were not people attracted to the GOP, when they were, because it was “pro-civil rights,” as Williamson asserts, or because they favored that party on any other issue. It was all about race, which is why, for example, the GOP percentage of the presidential vote veered insanely in Mississippi from 25% in 1960 to 87% in 1964 to 14% in 1968 to 78% in 1972.

Jimmy Carter (who was endorsed by Wallace and most other surviving Democratic ex-segregationists) got a lot of those voters back for the obvious reason of regional pride, and after that issues other than civil rights did matter in the region, though the racial polarization of the two parties was evident from the beginning in Mississippi and eventually spread elsewhere. But however you slice it, the idea that Barry Goldwater in 1964 was viewed by white southerners as anything other than the direct descendent of the Dixiecrats is just ridiculous. Sure, issues other than civil rights buttressed GOP strength in the region later on, but it would not have happened if the GOP had not also rapidly become the party most hostile towards or indifferent to civil rights. It’s also worth mentioning that among the Republicans who were notably interested in civil rights in and after 1964, none of them were southerners.

And that leads me to the most preposterous thing about Williamson’s essay: he’s writing as a movement conservative for the flagship publication of movement conservatism. To the extent that Republicans before, during or after the 1960s fit the pro-civil rights profile he’s trying to affix on the party as a whole, they were overwhelmingly not movement conservatives. Most of them, in fact, were the very “liberals” and “moderates” and “RINOs” movement conservatives have been trying to run out of the GOP, with great success, for decades.

It’s likely, of course, that Williamson’s definition of “civil rights” differs not only from mine but from that shared by most people who aren’t “movement conservatives.” This is a man, after all, who think’s it is obvious that LBJ and other Democrats were pursuing a consciously racist strategy of “enslaving” African-Americans by promoting the social programs associated with the Great Society. He may well think “liberating” black folks from the morally corrupting influence of Medicaid or food stamps or the ignominy of affirmative action is the true “civil rights agenda.” In that sense, his revisionist effort will succeed, because it makes sense to the people who are his audience, and who don’t want to acknowedge that while most Republicans today may not be bigots, most bigots are certainly voting Republican, just as they voted Democratic prior to World War II. In that regard, there is zero question the two parties have “switched roles” with a vengence.

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.


  • Geoff G on May 23, 2012 3:42 PM:

    Apartheid in South Africa was followed by a truth and reconciliation commission. Today's conservatives want a sort of reconciliation, at least to the extent that they don't like to be considered racist because their immediate ideological forebears were clearly racist, but they are utterly opposed to truth. Now I understand that the truth is difficult and it is never easy to admit that you've been wrong. But conservatives can't even countenance a weak-kneed apology along the lines of "we were wrong, but it was a long time ago, so please get over it." Rather than truth, they insist on lying. And the lies are so transparent and wrong that they indicate a profound disregard of, if not outright hostility to, the legitimate concerns of African-Americans who fought so hard for equality in the past and still struggle to achieve full equality today.

    Look at it this way. Sometimes a spouse cheats on the other. In many cases, the marriage survives the infidelity. In most of the marriages that survive, the cheating spouse apologizes profusely and sincerely, and promises never to stray again. If a spouse found to be cheating denies the cheating, or minimizes it or blames it on the partner, the marriage remains on very shaky ground. And I think we'd all agree that a spouse who can't find the necessary contrition for the harm caused the other spouse is morally suspect.

    I am happy to assume any individual conservative is not a racist unless and until he or she proves otherwise. Whitewashing the past with outrageous, transparent lies is proof that Williamson is racist. Sorry, Bud, but own it. Your heroes Limbaugh and Breitbart do.
    Look at it this way. Sometimes a spouse cheats on the other. In many cases, the marriage survives the infidelity. In most of the marriages that survive, the cheating spouse apologizes profusely and sincerely, and promises never to stray again. If a spouse found to be cheating denies the cheating, or minimizes it or blames it on the partner, the marriage remains on very shaky ground. And I think we'd all agree that a spouse who can't find the necessary contrition for the harm caused the other spouse is morally suspect.

  • howard on May 23, 2012 3:42 PM:

    in addition to all of the above, someone should remind williamson how bill buckley felt about civil rights legislation in the '50s and early '60s, and someone should remind williamson which party adopted a "southern strategy" in 1968, and what they meant by that.

  • TCinLA on May 23, 2012 4:08 PM:

    Let us also not forget that the sainted founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley - Mr. Conservative Republican - was profoundly opposed to the Civil Rights Movement back at the time he founded the magazine.

    There was indeed a time when the Republican Party was the spearhead of abolitionism, back about 155 years ago when people like my three-times-great-grandfather, a Quaker Abolitionist from a family that had been abolitionist since the time of the Germantown Quakers' decision to bar slaveowners from membership in their meeting back in 1688, helped found the Pennsylvania Republican Party, which was one of the most pro-abolition state Republican Parties of the day. He was so opposed to slavery that in 1863, after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he supported his oldest son (my great-great-grandfather) leaving the Quaker Church to join the Union Army and fight in the War of Southern Treason. Our family remained Republicans on the issue of civil rights until my father voted for FDR in 1932 and his very-Republican mother voted for Harry Truman in 1948 for having desegregated the armed forces.

    Anyone who can claim that the Republican Party since the Great Sellout of 1876 - when they gave up Reconstruction to get Garfield into the White House - has been in any way favorable to the cause of civil rights doesn't have the intelligence to qualify as a member of Homo Sapiens (which is why all Republicans are actually from the separate species Homo Sap)

  • Ron Byers on May 23, 2012 4:20 PM:

    My problem is that I actually lived through the civil rights era and remember the Southern Strategy from the beginning. For me his effort to revise history requires me to simply forget what I distinctly remember from my formative years. That is kind of hard to do. Maybe in another generation some enterprising propagandist can get away with this silliness, but a lot of my friends and I are still alive. For us the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, and Richard Nixon are living memories.

  • Marc on May 23, 2012 4:29 PM:

    And let us remember that Republicans always loved Medicare and Social Security and always have tried to save it from those Democrats.

  • c u n d gulag on May 23, 2012 4:35 PM:

    In their own hearts, Conservatives know they're right.
    Extremely right.

    GOP POV:
    Lincoln, a R, freed the slaves.
    And the R's really were the key to the Civil Rights Acts, never mind that a Democratic President signed them.
    Today's Democrats are the REAL racists. because they were racists from 1865 until 1965.
    And today's R's are the real anti-racists, because they were from 1865 until 1965.
    That's history!
    Check it out.'

    "Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

    Addendum by 'c u n d gulag:'
    'And those who can reach out to those who can not remember the past, and convince them that an alternate history is the right one, will take advantage of the repetition, to the detriment of all but the ones providing the alternate history.'

  • Jim Filyaw on May 23, 2012 4:39 PM:

    The only thing that gives me pause is watching otherwise rational, honest commentators trying to make sense out of the latest G.O.P. fantasy. Wake up, folks! The Republican Party has gone around the bend. They really hear voices. They really consider tin foil hats as appropriate wear. They really, really believe that Obama is a native Kenyan, a Muslim, and a communist to boot. Why, of course the local Republican parties of Alabama and Mississippi wholeheartedly celebrate Martin Luther King day, and any one of their members would just love to have Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson over to dinner. That they believe this just goes to show how deeply detached from reality their alternate universe has become. It reminds me of the Star Trek episode, ‘Mirror, Mirror’. (Maybe Willard ought to consider how he’d look with a goatee).

  • Scott Farris on May 23, 2012 4:42 PM:

    In addition to everything Kilgore, Chait and others have stated, recall that Strom Thurmond actively recruited Goldwater to run for President and it was when Goldwater won the nomination in 1964 that Thurmond officially switched his affiliation to the Republican Party. Further, African-Americans themselves recognized the sea change Goldwater's nomination symbolized. Eisenhower had received 39 percent of the black vote in 1956 and Nixon 32 percent in 1960; in 1964, Goldwater received 6 percent of the black vote and no GOP candidate has received even 15 percent since. Reagan, believe it or not, was the top African-American vote-getter for Republicans, receiving 14 percent in his 1984 rout of Mondale. As I note in a chapter on Goldwater in my book, "Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation," Goldwater very consciously threw over black support in a bid to convert white Southerners to the Republican Party. He succeeded, and that is when the GOP stopped being the "Party of Lincoln."

  • neil b on May 23, 2012 5:00 PM:

    Well, the red states sure still act like they aren't much into civil rights:
    NC Paper features KKK rally ad on front page

  • Dan on May 23, 2012 5:07 PM:

    The first time civil rights received attention as a national issue was at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, when, led by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, the plank was added to the platform. It's what prompted South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat bid for the presidency. That's history, c u n d gulag.

  • Gov't Mule on May 23, 2012 5:38 PM:

    Williamson makes no sense at all. If his premise that moderate whites left the Democratic party in the South because of racism, then those moderates would have rejected both Nixon's Southern Strategy and Reagan's State's Rights speech in Philadelphia Mississippi. Funny how Republicans have a curious way of denouncing racism.

  • StephenInOttawa on May 23, 2012 8:36 PM:

    As far as I'm concerned Williamson has indelibly branded himself as a cynical propagandist with no regard for the truth by publishing this essay.

  • N.Wells on May 23, 2012 10:09 PM:

    For all the weirdness of the northern liberal - southern dixiecrat alliance in the years leading up to the huge southern conservative realignment from Nixon through Reagan, the modern alliance of business and the religious right seems to me even stranger. Although the short-term attractions of low tax rates are an obvious attraction, businesses benefit most from continued investment in and improvement of public infrastructure, the strongest possible middle class, government-supported basic research, the rule of law with enforced contracts and regulations that ensure a level playing field, and well-educated, contented, and healthy employees, and not a delusional, ignorance-based, theocracy.

  • LosGatosCA on May 24, 2012 2:59 AM:

    The Southern civil rights problem that persists is not a political problem, it's a cultural problem.

    It used to be for Southern politicians the cultural issues aligned with the Democratic Party and now they align with the Republican Party because they accommodate them while the Democratic Party doesn't.

    But it could flip again in 75 years, depending upon the rate of decline in Southern cultural bigotry (it is declining) and if Democrats feel they can regionally accommodate Southern bigots who are genuinely more moderate or learn to hide it better.

    There are other reasons why Southern cultural values line up better with Republicans: guns, religion, militarism. It's more than just race, although that's an important ingredient.

  • James M on May 24, 2012 9:26 AM:

    Gravity is a ….

    I almost totally agree with @ N Wells regarding his statement that businesses will ultimately not prefer to be aligned with a "…delusional, ignorance-based, theocracy". Although the current presidential election will almost certainly be a nail-biter, I have never felt better about the long-term prospects of the Democratic Party.

    The reason is not just favorable demographics shifts, but a rather a simple truth expressed by that great political philosopher, Sylvester Stallone, in the movie Cliffhanger. In one scene a bad guy makes a mistake and falls off the side of the mountain into the deep crevices below. Stallone then turns to the head villain and says, "Gravity is a bxxtch".

    Sly is right. Gravity is real and it doesn't matter whether you like it or not. Political parties and regions that ignore reality: that won't acknowledge scientific facts such as evolution and global warming, that spout crank economic theories that have no empirical or logical basis, will ultimately fail. They may never totally disappear, especially given our political system's strange bias toward relatively low-population areas, but they will also never thrive and are doomed to suffer a steady decline.

  • labman57 on May 28, 2012 10:01 PM:

    Civil rights is not a Republican vs. Democrat cause -- it was and still is a conservative vs. progressive cause.

    From the end of the Civil War until the 1960's, the Republican Party was the progressive force behind civil rights efforts. But when LBJ led the charge toward mandating the end of segregation in the South, a dramatic shift in party affiliation began which culminated in the rise of the ultra-conservative Religious Right in the 1980's. As a result, racially and religiously intolerant social conservatives are accurately identified with the GOP of the last half century.

  • Bill Peterson on October 12, 2012 2:30 PM:

    Ed Kilgore can say whatever he wants, but look at the voting records for Congress. The Civil Rights Bills presented before Congress NEVER, N. E. V. E. R. would have passed if not for Republicans. You couldn't get enough Dems to vote for it and not even close. The Republicans carried the vote and passed those bills. In the 26 major civil rights votes after 1933, a majority of Democrats opposed civil rights legislation in over 80 percent of the votes. By contrast, the Republican majority favored civil rights in over 96 percent of the votes. Sorry, but the record doesn't lie, it's all public. So don't give me this BS that it's the Republicans that are revising history.