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