When I was a kid, it was the (conservative) Southern Democrats who stood in ferocious opposition to justice for our country's African-American minority. Northern Republicans (such as Everett Dirksen of Illinois) were foursquare for civil rights legislation and used their legislative influence to help make it law. Among the most hateful of the Southern Democrats who opposed equal rights for blacks was the despicable Strom Thurmond, whose opposition to such measures bordered on the pathological. (He wore a diaper so he could conduct a 24 hour filibuster in the Senate against the 1957 Civil Rights Act!) Yes, the deal with the devil the national Democratic Party had made was truly shameful: tolerate the Southern racists as long as those same racists delivered states for Roosevelt or Stevenson on election day.
But in 1963-64 all of this began to change drastically. After John F. Kennedy's shocking assassination 44 years ago Thursday, a new president, a Southern Democrat named Lyndon Johnson, took over. And, fully aware of the political consequences of such a move, Johnson became the greatest civil rights president in American history. (The fascinating story of LBJ's courageous stand in favor of justice--and the price the Democratic Party paid in the South--can be found here.) Johnson was simply magnificent on these issues. His tragic legacy in Vietnam has taken attention away from his leadership on human rights, but it does not change the record. LBJ not only talked the talk, he walked the walk, more than any other president has.
In the same period, far-right conservatives began to take over the local machinery of the Republican Party. They found a hero in Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater. Goldwater, I am convinced, was not personally a racist, but he was willing to look the other way in regard to those who were. Goldwater's opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act made him a magnet to racists all over the country, especially in the former "Solid South". While the rest of America was shifting heavily Democratic in '64, there was a strong undercurrent of what used to be called "white backlash" in the country. It was already propelling George Wallace to national prominence, and it caused many southerners who had never voted Republican in their lives to support Goldwater. In the general disaster the Republicans suffered in 1964, this support stood out in startling contrast. From the article linked to above:
The one region in which Republicans gained was in the previously solid South. The five states that Goldwater won outside Arizona (Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana) were the top five states in terms of black population levels. Goldwater's message of racial conservatism carried the day with the white electorate of those states, sometimes by landslide numbers (87 percent in Mississippi). Of the 507 Southern counties that Goldwater carried, 233 had never voted Republican before. [My emphasis.] The Goldwater effect was present even in parts of the urban ethnic North, if more muted...Moreover, while Goldwater was a disaster for most Republicans, of the twenty new Republican members of Congress, nine were from the South, and five were from Alabama alone. Eisenhower and Nixon had won border Southern states like Virginia and Tennessee. Goldwater lost those states while winning the heart of Dixie, the black belt.
And among the Southern Democrats who switched to being Republican was the aforementioned loathsome Strom Thurmond. The national Republican Party took a clear message from all this: opposing equal rights for black Americans (or at least slowing down the pace of such progress) was a political winner in the South (and in parts of Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, or in any white suburb where voters felt threatened by black "incursions".) Naturally, this racism had to be subtle, lest more moderate or liberal voters be put off. The turmoil of the 1960s, the urban riots in such places as Detroit and Watts (which were tragically self-destructive and harmful to racial relations in America), the anti-war agitation, and the rise of violent crime handed the Republicans the perfect vehicle--"Law and Order" as a codeword for "Let's stop the blacks from threatening White America." Now those who hated blacks could hide behind a convenient label.
It is here that the Democrats dropped the ball. Fear of crime was a legitimate issue; a public opinion poll at the time indicated that half the women in America were afraid to go out at night. Foolishly, short-sightedly, Democrats in the late 60s did not work hard enough to address the legitimate concerns of Americans about crime, but simply let the Republicans, in effect, "have" the law and order issue. For fear of seeming to support the racists who were using "law and order" as a cloak, the Democrats didn't take a strong enough stand. We should have said, "Crime is not a racial issue". We should have said "We are for law and order AND justice." We should have pointed out that blacks were among the worst victims of crime. But instead of de-linking race and crime, the Democrats conceded the field to the Republicans. Those who were worried about crime were drawn into an alliance with those who opposed civil rights. Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy", drawn up by advisors such as Patrick Buchanan, worked to create such alliances. The results were disastrous. The Democratic share of the vote dropped from 61% in 1964 to 43% in 1968. In the Old Confederacy, the Democratic share of the vote fell to 31%! Hubert Humphrey actually finished third in Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, running behind Nixon and Wallace.
By 1972, the Nixon-Wallace voter alliance led to an enormous victory for Nixon in the South, who carried every state in the region, the first time ANY Republican had ever done so. Many of these states provided Nixon with astonishing shares of the vote--71% in South Carolina, 75% in Georgia, 72% in Florida, 72% in Alabama, 78% in Mississippi, 73% in Oklahoma, 66% in Texas. Jimmy Carter's regional strength in 1976 seemed a promising reversal of fortune for the Democrats, but by 1980, Ronald Reagan was again able to use subtle (and not so subtle) appeals to racism to win, edging out Carter in many Southern states. In 1984 Mondale was wiped out in the South, losing most states in the region by margins of 20, 25, or 30 percentage points. In the rest of the country. "Reagan Democrats", drawn by the social conservatism of Reagan (and the subtly anti-black undertone of it) helped cement Reagan's national landslide. The "Willie Horton" message of the Bush campaign in 1988 was simply a logical extension of the now classic Republican strategy: stirring up fear of those Awful Negroes was a winner.
Now, for myriad reasons, many of them unrelated to race, many southern voters are now firmly Republican, providing Bush with his narrow margin of victory in 2004 (and making 2000 close enough to steal). The appeals to hatred are no longer overt. But the roots of Republican dominance in the South are clear: Starting in 1964, when the Democratic Party took a stand for human rights, our base in the South began deserting us in droves. The rise of the Republican Party in the South was based, more than any other factor, on race hatred and prejudice, and the Republicans have never repudiated, or even admitted, this shameful history.
To sum up, let me quote the summary to the superb article I have linked to:
In 1960 the Republicans made a serious effort for the black vote, and failed. In 1964 they accepted black hostility and tried to win without minorities. The pendulum that had swung quite far toward civil rights in 1960 now had swung far closer to George Wallace, although it never reached his pure anti-black malice. Neither strategy was successful in the short term, but in the ashes of the Goldwater defeat, Richard Nixon and others saw hopes for a Republican renewal, based on peeling off white voters from their Democratic allegiance. One lesson of 1964 for Republicans was that the open racism practiced by Goldwater's Southern supporters must be decried, denied, and denounced. Yet the second lesson of 1964 for the GOP was central to later Republican victories. If racial politics could draw white voters into the camp of a candidate as extreme and unelectable as Barry Goldwater, then it was indeed among the most powerful forces in American politics. What might it do in the hands of a more appealing messenger? By 1968 the political alchemists of the Republican Party had refined a heady mixture of codeworded backlash appeals and surface adherence to racial egalitarianism. Nixon's 1968 and 1972 "Southern Strategy" campaigns were designed to bring in the backlash votes without alarming the rest of the electorate. More recently, the 1988 Bush campaign used the rape of a white woman by a convicted black murderer to encourage white Democrats to vote Republican, an odious campaign that Barry Goldwater would have refused to run on. While 1964 was a tremendous victory for the Democratic Party and for Lyndon Johnson, it was also the election that taught Republicans how to use racial politics to help pave the road to the White House for the next three decades.
Our country is still dealing with the fateful consequences of the decisions made in 1964, the year that in many ways was the decisive one in modern American political history.