Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Letter Writer Gets the History of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Wrong

Today's Indianapolis Star brings the latest exchange of letters regarding Republicans and racism. Pascal de Caprariis of Martinsville writes:

In criticizing a column by Leonard Pitts, Robert Meier (Letters, June 29) correctly notes that not all racists are or have been in the Republican Party. In fact, in the past, many racists were Democrats. But Meier neglected to mention that after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 many of the Southern racists in the Democratic Party suddenly became Republicans. Because of that shift, Republicans have had a lock on the South since then.
It is clear though that the writer has no grasp whatsoever of history. Republicans supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in overwhelming numbers, by 80%, while Democrat support was in the low 60s. It was a contingent of Democratic Senators from the South who attempted to stop the Civil Rights Act with a filibuster, which Republicans voted en masse to break. Republican, Everett Dirksen, carried the bill in the Senate and helped break filibuster. So, pray tell, why would those Democrats in the South switch parties because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it was Republicans chiefly supporting the bill and it was their Democratic Party in the South voting against it?

I have written on this subject before in Democrats & Civil Rights: A Shameful Legacy (9/28/2008). Below is an excerpt from that post.

The Democrats' history on civil rights is a shameful one. After the close of Reconstruction in the South, the Democratic Party took over the region by threatening and intimidating Republican elected officials and voters. During Reconstruction, blacks in the South voted overwhelmingly Republican. Many of the Republicans elected from the South were black. The end of Reconstruction brought the curtain down on two-party competition in the old states of the Confederacy. For more than the next 100 years, the Democratic Party was the only party in the South.

During that century of one party dominance of the region, the Democrats enacted laws mandating segregation. Any attempts blacks made to reassert political power in the region were curtailed by numerous measures adopted by Democrat-dominated legislatures. These included poll taxes, the “White Primary,” literacy tests, etc. Locally, Democrat officials blocked blacks from voting by harassment and intimidation of those who dared try to register. Even as late as the 1960s there were counties in Mississippi, for example, that, although they were majority black, only a tiny percent of those blacks were registered.

President John Kennedy, far from being a leader in the civil rights arena, was dragged kicking and screaming into the debate on the issue. As a Senator, he had opposed a federal anti-lynching law. As a candidate for president he had not supported civil rights legislation for fear of angering white Democrats in the south. It was only when the political winds changed in the early 1960s that JFK came out in favor of the civil rights bill.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 are seen as the triumph of Democrat President Lyndon Johnson. But in fact, both bills enjoyed much wider support among Republicans than Democrats. Over 80% of Republicans supported those two bills, while Democrat support was in the low 60s. The key member of Congress who helped carry those bills was not a Democrat, but a Republican, conservative Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Southern Democrats had conducted a filibuster against the bill. Dirksen and the Republicans helped break the filibuster.

The other day, I heard a commentator say that after the civil rights bills, the Republicans immediately took over the South and have dominated it ever since. That simply isn’t correct. Although Republican presidential fortunes in the South turned around in the 1970s, Democrats continued to dominate the region at the other levels of government. It’s only been within the last 20 years that Republicans have become competitive with Democrats in Southern congressional and state legislative districts as well as state-wide offices.

In the political spin Democrats use, Republicans started winning the South because it adopted the racist and segregationist policies that Democrats had abandoned. It is simple-minded rhetoric, backed up by no proof whatsoever. The fact is that many Democrats in the south only voted Democrat because of the history of the Civil War and the fact the party post-Civil War pushed racist, segregationist policies they favored. When the Democrats abandoned these racist, segregationist policies, the reason these conservative voters were voting Democrat was removed. Southerners did not start voting Republican because the GOP adopted the Southern Democrats racist agenda. They started voting Republican because Democrats abandoned their racist agenda.

I have always said that the greatest spin in political history is how the Democrats have persuaded people that their party in fact was the great champion of civil rights. History says otherwise. The fact the Democrats have nominated an African-American for President, speaks well that the party of slavery and segregation has taken the final step in casting aside its shameful racist history. For that, everyone, Republicans and Democrats, should applaud.

As I explain above, the reason for the switch in party allegiances in the South (which wasn't nearly as sudden as suggested by Mr. de Caprariis) was not that the Republicans became the racist party, but that the Democrats stopped being the racist party, in particular the party eventually stoped supporting things like legal segregation and Jim Crow laws which were the product of Democratic dominated legislatures and city councils in the South. Voters who strongly supported Democrats in the past did not switch parties because Republican adopted racist policies of Democrats but because the Democrats abandoned those policies and those southern voters, who were already conservative on other issues, naturally drifted to the more conservative political party, the GOP.

See also: Niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. Corrects the Democrats' Revisionist Civil Rights History (9/15/2008)


Doug said...

If I'm reading your commentary correctly, the South started voting Republican - not because the Republicans became racists, but because the racists became Republicans?

Any formulation of less than a chapter or two is going to be overly simplistic; particularly when it comes to race relations. But, the necessary conclusion - I think - is that if the racists stopped voting Democratic when the Democrats abandoned their racists policies, then the racists voters either stayed home or they started voting Republican.

And, of course, the formulation that the racist Democrats turned into Republicans is given some credibility by the careers of guys like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.

Paul K. Ogden said...

The point is that those southerners became Republicans (and again it wasn't like switching on a light switch, but very gradual)because the Democrats eventually gave up their segregationist and racist policies.

To phrase it perhaps a better way, the only reason many of these southern voters were Democrats was the legacy of the Civil War and because the Democrats supported legal segregation and the Jim Crow laws. Once you take that reason away for voting Democrat, there really is little reason for these otherwise conservative voters to stay with the Democratic Party.

It's overly simplistic to say "racists" found a home in the Republican Party. That implies theyy made the choice to switch because the Republican Party adopted racist policies they supported as Democrats. There just is no evidence Republicans have ever supported the same racist laws that the D's did in the South.

Even the elected officials you cite - Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond - prove my point. Helms and Thurmond supported Jim Crow and legal racial segregation as Democrats. Once you took that away, there was really no reason for them to remain as Democrats. Helms and Thurmond did not support Jim Crow and legal segregation as Republicans. They supported those when they were yonger and Democrats.

Unigov said...

Pascal de Caprariis of Martinsville is a frequent Star letter writer, and a kneejerk liberal.

Paul K. Ogden said...


I started to write a letter to the editor contradicting him but I'm pretty sure he would not want to be confused with historical facts.

Thomas said...

I wonder why the writer still got this part of history wrong. It is easy to research these Civil Rights of 1964 facts using Google.

class action lawyer

Samie said...

Seems like he have other sources where he got his so-called facts. But it is just irresponsible not to make an extra research specially on a sensitive subject like the Civil Rights Act.

wites and kapetan