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Intransigence to Transition: Thirty Years of Southern Politics

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975

MY favorite anecdotalist among Southern politicians, Brooks Hays, the former Congressman from Arkansas, is fond of quoting a summary judgment to the effect that, “Next to fried food, the South suffers most from oratory.” One might add that the South today may suffer almost as much from an excess of political and social analysis as it does from fried food, and more than it does from the declining art of oratory. Forces of circumstance, however, have tended to turn recent analysis away from the attempt to explain why the South was politically intransigent for so long (and what it would take to move it in almost any direction) and toward a concern for the rapidity of recent change in the region (and what form of stability might eventually emerge when and if the flux abates). The fact of political change of great magnitude in the South since World War II is not in dispute; but the causes, extent and ultimate direction of that change are avidly debated in scholarly and popular literature, as well as in the more practical arenas, such as the communications media, party caucuses, conventions, election campaigns, and legislative bodies, all of which immediately affect the actual process of change.

If one returns briefly in imagination to the era of the second World War, it does appear that the South’s politics at that time had been set in concrete for at least 50 years, and its major characteristic was easily identifiable. That characteristic—the dominant one-party system—had been solidified in the 1890’s and early 1900’s, by means of constitutional and statutory action. It excluded nearly all blacks from access to the ballot, and thus from all forms of direct political participation, and considerably diminished the electoral activities of whites, especially poor whites. Stringent registration requirements (including the grandfather clause and its corollary, the literacy test), long residence qualification periods, wide latitudes of administrative discretion on the part of local registrars, the poll tax and eventually the white Democratic Primary combined to perfect this political arrangement or, in the words of W. J. Cash, to turn the Democratic Party in the South into “. . .the institutionalized incarnation of the will to white supremacy . . .”, and to limit severely “. . .the resolution of the inevitable conflict of interest between the classes, and the securing of a reasonable degree of social equity. . . .”

At the outset of World War II only about a quarter of a million blacks (5 per cent of the black population of voting age) were registered to vote in the eleven Southern states of the old Confederacy. Most of those who qualified were Republicans and therefore precluded from participation in the real elections—the Democratic primaries—through which virtually all state and local offices were filled and nearly all United States Senators and Congressmen were selected. The systematic exclusion of blacks, and the fall-out effect of this exclusion among the poor whites, undoubtedly contributed to the general apathy associated with Southern elections. Before the end of Reconstruction the turnout in presidential elections in the South, for instance, compared favorably with the non-Southern states, and even during the “New South” emphasis of the 1880’s and the Populist competitive period of the 1890’s, the spread was not too pronounced. But from 1900 through 1948 the gap was enormous. The only time that the South’s voter participation in a presidential election exceeded 30 per cent (and then only slightly) was in 1916; in 1924 the nadir was reached when less than 18 per cent of the voters participated in the national election. By contrast, the states outside the South consistently ranged upwards from the 60 per cent turnout mark in national elections.

If the function of the Democratic Party in the South was clear from the post-Reconstruction period until the end of World War II, so, too, was the role of the South in the national Party. As the geographic base of the Party throughout this entire period, the South was at first vital to the very survival of the Democratic Party within the context of a two-party system. Furthermore, as a majority in the minority party in Congress, the Southern Democrats were remarkably skillful in protecting regional objectives through the exercise of disproportionate influence in Washington. The principal means included control of the Democratic caucus and major congressional party offices, the seniority system (in which Southerners were aided by the low level of competition in the one-party system and the consequent long tenure of Southern Congressmen and senators) and the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote of the delegates to Democratic nominating conventions for the selection of presidential candidates, which, until it was repealed in 1936, gave Southern delegates a veto over the choice of nominees.

Despite the appearance of simplicity in the political pattern, complications were present. Political conformity was far from total. Social and economic differences did produce political competition within the one-party framework, even if it was somewhat more sporadic and less innovative when successfully pursued by an out group than in those parts of the country in which it was institutionalized through the two-party system.

Contemporary historians, in fact, are increasingly puzzled about the meaning of the terms applied to certain social and political strata at various times in the post Civil War era. Were the so-called Bourbon redeemers an aristocratic force in Southern politics who yearned for the ancien régime of romantic agrarianism or were they agricultural Whigs acting in full alliance with the Whig merchants, bankers and textile industrial managers who wielded political as well as economic power under the broad umbrella of local and state Democratic Party auspices? And who ‘were the “New South” advocates : progressive institutional reformers and social and economic class meliorists out of the old yeoman tradition, or acquisitive capitalists bent on bringing an industrial order to the South, less from a desire to rehabilitate (or “develop”) the region than to exploit its natural and human resources? Or what are we to make of the Populists, whose near-success in the 1890’s acted as the catalyst for the solidification of the apparently monolithic system of single-party politics? Was Populism a recurrence, under less favorable external circumstances, of Jacksonian democracy and thus classically liberal in its proposed egalitarian and individual libertarian goals, or was it an incipient mass movement of the type brought to ideological and operational reality in the 20th century revolutionary movements on both the right and the left?

The apparent political cohesion of the South was symbolized by Democratic Party identification and the romantic myths of the lost cause on the positive side, and by Reconstruction, Republicanism and the threat of black dominance ( allegedly deriving from these sources ) on the negative one. As evocative as the symbols were in blurring competing social and political forces and in blunting the effectiveness of reform moves intended to break the pattern of conformity, the latent divisions in Southern society were too great ever to be totally contained. In recent years they have been released so rapidly that little remains of the old coherence.

If the political groups who sporadically competed against each other within the loosely monolithic cover of the Southern Democratic Party could not be very clearly denned, the social and economic structure of the South down to World War II could easily be identified by contrasting the region’s demographic features with the rest of the country. For while the North (generally speaking) went through the massive transformation of industrialization and urbanization, the South remained an agrarian outpost with a predominantly rural population. As late as 1940, Florida was the only Southern state that was more than 50 per cent urban; by that date the country had become two-thirds urban, while the South was still two-thirds rural. In the 1930’s nearly half the gainfully employed persons in the South worked in agricultural occupations.

And the South, which really had only one great metropolitan area—New Orleans—during most of the period between the Civil War and World War II, did not share in the rapid influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who flooded the growing cities, where they provided much of the labor force for the expanding industries, thereby contributing to the restructuring of social classes in America and the generation of the ethnic politics (which continues to play a critical role in urban politics and, through the concentration of these populations in the urban areas, in State and national politics as well). By contrast, the South’s population in this period remained largely indigenous and static relative to the rest of the country. The social, economic and political divisions which developed out of the new industrial order were insignificant in the South, especially when juxtaposed against the black-white cleavage, which was essentially a caste rather than a class system. Social and economic class divisions obviously existed among white Southerners, and class lines eventually came into being within the black communities ; but these were accepted, ignored or compromised in the successful effort to maintain white social and political supremacy.

These socio-economic characteristics and the political arrangements attendant on them certainly set the South apart from the Northeast and most of the rest of the country in a perpetuation, and even exaggeration, of the politics of sectionalism that had been virtually built into the system from its origins. The Compromise of 1876 ushered in the long period of Republican dominance and left the South free to pursue its peculiar policies and serve as the territorial bastion of the minority party. And even when the Democratic Party was in power during Woodrow Wilson’s administration and the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the South could comfortably continue to set its own local policies on racial and many other matters, largely because the national Party was dependent on the region for its solid geographic base of electoral support and its source of leadership in the Congress and even in the executive branch.

One other apparent anomoly in the old Southern politics needs to be mentioned before proceeding to a discussion of its breakup since World War II. In many recent interpretations the South is pictured as having been as consistently and monolithically conservative, or even reactionary, in its politics as it has been in some of its more prominent social and cultural features. This view is largely an extrapolation from the South’s defensive posture since 1948, and it is patently false with respect to national politics during the first four decades of this century. Not only were Southerners in Congress and the Cabinet instrumental in developing the reform legislation of the Wilson era and in providing ideas, congressional leadership and majorities for the New Deal programs, but public opinion polls from 1933 through World War II reveal white Southerners as having been more supportive of the New Deal than the citizens of any other section of the country. Even more striking is the fact that proportionately more Southerners identified themselves as liberals during that period than did the residents of the other regions. This phenomenon has not been adequately explored, possibly because it might disturb the political utility of the opposing stereotype; or perhaps because there was a contrast between the effectiveness of party identification and presidential leadership at the national level and the inability of most of the Southern states to overcome the inertia produced by decentralized, personally based political organizations operating at the state and county seat levels. But whatever the cause, the concrete evidence points to the fact that white Southerners were actually more favorably disposed toward governmental intervention in the economy than were their counterparts in the other sections—at least until that intervention threatened established race relations in the South.


Politics, not being a totally derivative human activity, often lags in its response to social change. Recent analysts, for example, have pointed out that the choice of Al Smith as the Democratic nominee and the subsequent distribution of the popular vote in the 1928 presidential election prefigured realignment which brought the Democratic Party to semi-permanent majority status after 1932, despite the fact that Herbert Hoover, and the Republicans generally, won an impressive victory in that election. Smith, an Irish-American Catholic of humble origins, nourished in his political career by an urban machine organization and still speaking with accent unmistaka’bly identified with the metropolitan working class, symbolized the new forces in American economic and political life which were the products of a matured urban-industrial society. And the election returns confirmed the political disposition of these new forces because Smith piled up substantial leads in most of the major metropolitan areas, which had previously tended to be traditionally Republican. By 1932 the Great Depression furnished the issue that enabled Franklin Roosevelt to expand the urban ethnic vote into a major element in his new majority Democratic coalition. But it should not be forgotten that in 1928 the Republicans carried five Southern states in the presidential election— the first major defection from Democratic solidarity in presidential elections since 1876 (Tennessee had voted Republican in 1920). Although religion and Smith’s support of the repeal of prohibition were the most obvious issues affecting the 1928 Republican vote in the South, the entire range of social and economic differences between the new sources of Democratic support in the North and the old bases of support in the South may be seen in retrospect as a pending threat to the permanence of the Roosevelt coalition even before that uneasy alliance was fully formed.

Something similar to the transition in national party politics between 1928 and 1932 (and thereafter) might be said to have taken place in the South in the post World War II era. That is, social and economic changes went on before, during and after the war, both inside and outside the South, which eventually led—after a series of climactic events—to a complete breakup of the old pattern of Southern politics. The most dramatic events may be listed in a somewhat over-simplified way:

  1. The U. S. Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright (1944), which marked the beginning of the end of the white primary, and prepared the way for the chain of judicial decisions, executive orders and eventual legislation that combined to admit blacks to participation in Southern politics.
  2. The overt resistance of Southern Democrats to the national Democratic Party in 1948, including a delegate walk-out from the National Convention as a protest against the civil rights plank in the platform, and the organization of the Dixiecrat or States’ Rights Party which carried four Southern states in the election yet failed in its effort to prevent the election of Harry Truman as President. This was simply the first in a series of rapidly intensifying Southern protests in presidential elections, culminating in 1972 in a new Southern solidarity in a presidential election when all eleven of the former Confederate states were carried by the Republican Party.
  3. The U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overruled the application of the “separate but equal” doctrine and thus struck down the legal foundation for racial segregation.
  4. The rise of massive resistance to racial integration in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, mainly in the form of state legislation and litigation designed to obstruct and slow down the process of desegregation.
  5. The civil rights movement in the 1960’s, with an increasing application of force by the national government to offset the continued resistance, frequently by violent means, on the part of Southerners to the demands of the civil rights groups.

Such a listing, while perhaps evoking memories of the painful and sometimes erratic course by which mind-boggling social and political change have been brought about in the South in recent years, does little to indicate the multidimensional aspects of that change in either its social or political connotations. The social foundations of the old politics have been altered almost beyond recognition: the South today is essentially an urban and industrial society, its former insularity has all but disappeared, its “racial problem” has become a national one, and the economic and social class divisions of its population increasingly reflect those of the rest of the country. Politically, the South is no longer a one-party section, but it is still not clear what forms of competition will emerge from the altered conditions under which the South operates with respect to national politics and the transformations that have taken place in the traditional political forces within the Southern states.

No abstract summary can do justice to the rich diversity of the concrete events and personalities that have shaken and moved Southern politics over the past 30 years. But it seems to me that two historical trends can be traced through the confused array of social movements, electoral alignments, aggregations of power in parties, legislative bodies, and executive branches, issue orientations and governmental decisions during that period. One is the changing status of the black ; the other is the demise of the one-party system. That these two trends are connected with each other in a complex set of cause and effect relations is obvious. What may not be quite so obvious is the extent to which so many other aspects of Southern politics may be fully appreciated only in relation to one or the other or both of these general lines of change. Demographic factors, ideologies, the relation between sectional and national politics, and a vast range of policy issues are only a rough sample of the politically and socially affective topics that can be subsumed by these broader categories.


Although the migration of blacks from the South to other sections of the country, and from the rural to the urban areas in the South, began earlier, after 1940 it reached epic proportions. In 1940 nearly 70 per cent of the black population of America lived in the South ; in 1970 less than 50 per cent of America’s blacks remained in the region. At the turn of the century more than 47 per cent of the population of the deep South was black ; by 1970 the figure had dropped to less than 25 per cent. Mississippi’s black population, which for the first time fell fractionally below 50 per cent of that state’s population in 1940, had by 1970 dropped to less than 37 per cent, still by far the largest proportion of blacks in any state. Between 1940 and 1970 more than one million blacks migrated out of the South each decade ; in all a total of more than three and one half million left the region during this 30-year period. More than 95 per cent of the migrants ended up in northern metropolitan areas. In the meantime, the shift of blacks from rural to urban residence in the South has been catching up with the pattern of white residential change in the section. By 1970 50 per cent of the blacks in the South lived in metropolitan areas, which by that time contained 54 per cent of the total population of the region.

This redistribution of black population in part generated, and in other respects reflected, a complete transformation in black-white relations and thus played a major role in the present transitional state of Southern politics. It is not really an exaggeration to characterize the situation of American blacks as late as 1940 in the following terms: the overwhelming proportion of blacks continued to live in the South, mainly in the rural areas and in a state of economic dependence on white paternalists. Southern blacks were strictly segregated from whites by custom and law in all public activities and in most residential areas, and they were almost completely excluded from formal political participation even at the elementary level of casting a ballot. In the North the legal status of blacks was that of equals. Yet their relatively small numbers, marginal economic status and recent appearance combined to keep their political and social profiles low. Thus their impact was not sufficient to change the pattern of neglect by most of the non-Southern states, the political parties and the national government into an active program of support.

In the last 35 years, and especially in the last ten to 15 years, these basic conditions have altered almost beyond the belief of those who are old enough to have lived through and observed the process. As early as 1936 vague signs of the future began to appear. The blacks in northern metropolitan areas, though relatively small in proportion to total populations, were strategically located and could be co-opted into the urban-ethnic part of the Roosevelt coalition. Most blacks, North and South, identified with the Republican Party as the Party of liberation down to 1936. But in that year and the years following, a wholesale shift to the Democratic Party occurred in response to the organizational efforts of the urban Democratic machines. This shift was aided by the appeal of New Deal social legislation, which was an obvious benefit to those who were on the very lowest rung of the economic ladder. It is worth noting, too, that 1936 was not only the year of repeal of the two-thirds rule in the Democratic Convention. It was also the year in which black delegates were first seated in the Convention. In addition, 1936 was the year in which an overt (if not very successful) reaction displayed itself in the South in the form of a “Grass Roots Convention” held in Georgia as an anti-New Deal move by representatives of the Southern and border states. Organizations such as the N. A. A. C. P. and the Urban League concentrated for a long time on immediate issues which might command white support on moral grounds—e. g. ,anti-lynching laws and removal of the poll tax. With the increasing centralization of governmental power and decision-making in all areas during the New Deal, blacks were able to back up their appeals to conscience and constitutional principles with some measure of national political impact as their concentration in metropolitan areas grew ; and, as they became politically effective, the range of their political concerns broadened to the whole spectrum of the black’s place in American society. Washington’s response was rather tentative at first; in 1939 a civil liberties unit was added to the Justice Department, a Fair Employment Practice Commission was created in 1941 and during the war (which saw the pressures mount as blacks became more mobile and were drawn into the war effort along with other citizens), executive orders banned racial discrimination in the armed services and in connection with projects involving government contracts. The report of the Truman Committee on Civil Rights in 1947 and its impact on the 1948 Democratic Party Platform led directly to the spectacular events of 1948. After 1948 Civil Rights never really lost its place as a major domestic issue of American politics right down to the passage and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Although almost ten more years were to lapse before the passage of the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction, judicial and executive action really brought the beginning of the Second, and ultimately successful, Reconstruction into being a good bit earlier. The results are highly visible today : segregation is legally, and in most respects practically, finished in the South and the opportunity of political participation has been opened to the 95 per cent of Southern blacks who were effectively excluded prior to 1944.

The results can be summarized briefly. More than three million Southern blacks have been added to the voting rolls since the mid-forties ; almost half of this increase in registration has occurred in the ten years since the passage of the 1965 Act, with its authorization of direct federal administrative action in several specified Southern states. This would have been an enormous accretion of “new” voters for any society to absorb without destabilizing effects, let alone a society whose whole political tradition was geared to preventing that body of voters from any effective exercise of political power.

The broadening of the ‘base on which black political power depends for effectiveness within the institutional political arrangements in the United States has not changed the main direction of concentration on the part of the blacks away from the national area and toward state and local action, even though black political efforts in the latter areas have increased exponentially in recent years. The fact is, however, that the national government and the national major party organizations are not only committed to racial equality as a direct effect of their own actions in bringing the Second Reconstruction into being. Centralization of governmental power over the past 40 years has also meant that the major decisions in virtually all of the program areas of interest to blacks in their drive for equality are either already in the hands of federal authorities or can, with appropriate appeal to constitutional justification, be taken over by them. In other words, access to Washington is simply more important today than access to city hall or the statehouse because so much of what goes on in the latter places is effectively controlled by federal legislation, the federal bureaucracy and the federal judiciary. And however far blacks may be from reaching the final goal of equality in all areas, they do have access to Washington to an extent that few would have predicted even a decade or so ago. This access is not a matter of mere numbers so much as it is a disposition of mind, or a readiness to respond on the basis of a set of presumptions that virtually predetermine the outcome of an issue. It is possible to exaggerate the ease with which federal power can override state and local government and private actions designed to frustrate, delay or reverse national decisions which are unpopular locally. But the very fact that such local efforts are characterized in negative terms is an indication of the extent to which state and local units have been deprived of initiative in general policies ranging from the establishment of voting qualifications through the whole gamut of social issues such as welfare, education, housing, and employment opportunities.

Yet even if much of what blacks have achieved in the way of political efficacy has been brought about by federal actions which eventually broke the Southern resistance to these changes, it is still noteworthy that almost half of America’s blacks live in the South and constitute 20 per cent of that section’s population. So what has happened with respect to blacks in the internal politics of the South is also important. And here the changes are still so much in process that only tentative generalizations can be made. In recent years the percentage of blacks of voting age who are registered in the South has varied from slightly under 60 per cent to just over that figure, which places black registration only about 5 or 6 per cent below the comparable figure for white registration. Voting turnout among blacks varies substantially from time to time and from place to place. In the metropolitan areas participation has generally been highest, and the lowest levels are in the traditional strongholds of the black belt where economic dependence, white resistance, difficulty of organization, and general apathy are most pronounced. But even here changes have been marked, especially in towns and some counties in which blacks greatly outnumber whites and have managed to take over the local governments in their entirety.

About 1400 blacks now hold elective offices in the South, as compared with 70 or less as recently as ten years ago. Although this is a minute proportion of the nearly 80,000 elective offices in the South, it takes on aspects of infinity when measured against the situation existing 20 years ago. Most of the offices are minor ones: almost half are town or city council seats and most of these are in small towns with overwhelming black populations; the others are mainly school board seats, positions on county governing bodies and law enforcement offices ranging from sheriff to justice of the peace. Approximately 5 per cent of this total consists of holders of seats in state legislative bodies, and no black in the South holds a statewide elective office. A major breakthrough occurred in 1972 when Barbara Jordon in Houston and Andrew Young in Atlanta won congressional seats. Their elections indicated that black and white voters could join forces to support black candidates in electoral districts that cover more than minor local political boundaries. Maynard Jackson’s election as Mayor of Atlanta in 1973 enlarged this perspective by placing a black in the chief executive office of the Southeast’s major metropolitan center.

With black percentages of voting age populations ranging from 11 per cent to almost 30 per cent in the Southern states, few white politicians can afford to flaunt appeals to race prejudice, and in recent elections the tendency to solicit black votes openly has been increasingly in evidence. Such expressions of an annealing public attitude on black political participation have been more pronounced in the peripheral or rim states (where the new cosmopolitanism is more apparent) than in the deep South (with its larger proportions of blacks), and in the urban areas more than in the rural ones. This by no means indicates, however, that race has disappeared as a fundamental if now somewhat sub rosa consideration in the minds of the voters, black as well as white. The ancient hope of political liberals that common economic interests might come to outweigh considerations of race has not yet come to pass, except on the fringes of the two races. But that condition is better reflected in a consideration of the breakup of Democratic one-partyism than in a further concentration on the changing status of blacks,


The fact that some competition did exist within the one-party system in the South before 1945 has already been mentioned, and reference has been made to the fact that the South was more liberal in its economic outlook before World War II than has been generally recognized. It is ironic that the rise of the new Southern conservatism after the end of the War is usually interpreted as a consolidated renewal of standing resistance to the directions taken by the national Democratic Party and the Democratic Administration in Washington, whereas the early stages of the resurgence of conservatism were actually directed as much against incipient sources of change from within the South as from without. The war stimulated prosperity in the South, mainly as a result of capital investment in defense industries and military installations (arranged through the mediation of powerful Southern Congressmen). It also precipitated that shift of population from rural to urban areas which still goes on and brought a large number of young people who entered the armed forces as Southern provincials into contact with the outside world, from which they returned as relative cosmopolites. The availability of a potential source of new (and ambitious) political leadership from these young war veterans, many of whom had been successful military officers, combined with the older spirit of Southern (New Deal inspired, but mainly rural and populist oriented) liberalism to give promise of a state and local political reform movement throughout most of the states of the South.

This spirit had already manifested itself in the wartime administration of Governor Ellis Arnall of Georgia, whose defeat of Eugene Talmadge in 1942 gave a premature impression that the Talmage organization’s dominance might be displaced by a more urbane, moderate politics, accompanied by some social and political reform. The poll tax was repealed and the voting age reduced to 18 during Arnall’s administration, but the county unit system for conducting gubernatorial primaries remained intact and continued to skew the vote count heavily in favor of rural areas until it was ended in 1962. The post-war reform efforts took on a variety of forms and continued sporadically into the 1950’s.

In Alabama “Big Jim” Folsom won the governorship in 1946 and later tried to unite his hill-country populism with the moderate to liberal loyalist Senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman, to provide a countervailing power against the conservative Democrats who represented an amalgam of Bourbon planters and the “Big Mules” of Birmingham industry. The back of this effort was broken in 1948 when the resurgent conservatives seized on the race issue to turn back Folsom’s attempts to keep Alabama from defecting from the Democratic to the Dixiecratic Party. In 1948 Sid McMath, who had earlier broken up a local machine in Hot Springs, was elected Governor of Arkansas as a reform candidate out of a more sophisticated mold than that to which the state was accustomed. In the same year in Tennessee, Gordon Brown and Estes Kefauver won the governorship and a United States Senate seat, respectively, in hard-fought campaigns against “Boss” Ed Crump’s organizational candidates. In a somewhat different vein, Earl Long was elected Governor of Louisiana in 1948, thus resuming the Populist trend (or, as one observer has called it, the buccaneering liberalism) of the Long regime, following an eight-year interregnum in which the state had returned to its earlier Bourbon-business elites as an “honest government” antidote to the Long organization’s 1939 scandals.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive ; it is simply designed to suggest the variety of ways in which both new types of reform candidacies and the revival of older radical agrarian forces were connected with the more liberal tendencies of substantial segments of the Southern electorate down to 1948. However modest these state-by-state reform movements may appear in retrospect, all of them held out some promise of maintaining a competitive position for Southern liberalism in state elections and an affiliation of the respective state party organizations with the national Democratic Party. But all such efforts were to flounder (even though not all the protagonists were to disappear from politics) as the opposition to the racial moderation which they reflected, and which their affinities with the national party tended to exaggerate, mounted to the point of no return. The “garrison mentality” eventually triumphed.

From 1948 to at least the mid-1960’s, race (and opposition to the federal government’s new role in civil rights) was the controlling issue in virtually all state elections in the deep South, and in many of the peripheral Southern states it was a leading one. The extent to which the issue was merely useful (as it had been so often in the past) for reasserting or maintaining conservative power structures threatened by the new directions of national politics and local representatives of those directions may be problematic, but the results were not. Although the South did revert to conservatism (reaction might be a more descriptive term) in its voting patterns and in the stances of a disproportionate number of its leaders in state politics and in Congress, its effects on the course of federal action were, at the very least, negligible. In fact, unremitting Southern resistance to all changes in race relations may have hastened the advent of desegregation and black political participation more than it retarded them. And it certainly managed, by disrupting the relations between national and state Democratic Party organizations and the posture of many of its congressional delegates, to forfeit much of the old basis of Southern influence in the Democratic Party and in the Congress.

The permutations through which voting and other patterns that demonstrate the extent of the Southern defection could be taken are inexhaustable. Only a few can be suggested here. The phenomenon began at the top—with the voting in presidential elections. From 1876 through 1944 the Southern states were solidly Democratic in all but three presidential elections ; Republicans carried only nine out of a possible 198 state votes during that time. Since 1948 the Democrats have lost 521/2 of a possible 77 state presidential votes in the South, including ten in 1968 and all eleven in 1972. Through the 1956 election the South consistently delivered the highest proportion of votes of any section of the country to Democratic presidential candidates. In 1960 the Northeast replaced the South as the strongest sectional supporter of Democratic presidential candidates, and in the last three elections the South has given the Democratic nominees the lowest proportion of votes of any section of the country.

In Congress the percentage of Democratic Representatives and Senators has gone down at a relatively slower pace, but the total share of the House seats resulting from this decline and the rise in the numbers of non-Southerners in both House and Senate have combined to reduce the South (even with its border state allies included) from a majority to a decided minority status. In the mid-fifties the Southern and border state Democrats could claim 31 Senators and 130 members of the House as compared with 18 Northern Democratic Senators and 102 members of the House. By 1970 those figures were as follows: 19 Southern and border Democratic Senators as compared with 35 from the North, and 98 House members from the South as against 157 from the North.

As the Northern Democrats gained in strength relative to Southern delegates, they became bolder in their moves to break the conservative Southern hold on the congressional party. Two Southern congressmen were stripped of their seniority in 1965 because they supported Goldwater in 1964, and a third received the same treatment in 1969, The 1974 elections brought an even more militant group of Democrats into the House, and they went so far as to attack the semi-sacred seniority system by removing some committee chairmen. In part this action could be justified on grounds of party discipline. In other respects, though, it smacked of simple retribution against the South, because Congressman Wright Patman of Texas, who is really an old school liberal, was one of the purged chairmen, while a northern Democratic committee chairman who was under fire managed to secure a reversal of the vote to remove him. Except for the implications this action may have as a threat to the seniority system as such, the effects of the removals may be moot anyway ; the South’s dominance of committee chairmanships has already been reduced by attrition to a matter of a very few key positions in each house. Even these leadership positions are in the hands of individuals who may be expected to retain them only a short time longer, and most of their possible Southern replacements are far down the seniority ladder.

In the matter of party identification, the South’s voters— or at least its white voters—have also demonstrated that the Democratic symbol no longer forms the basis of their political identity. In 1940, polls indicated that 76 per cent of the Southern electorate identified as Democrats, 15 percent were Republicans and only 8 per cent were independents. By 1974 only about 50 per cent of the Southern voters identified as Democrats (and the figure remains high because of the accretion of almost all the new black voters to the Democratic Party), Republican identification was a mere 18 per cent (after having gone to a high of 26 in 1956), and 32 per cent of the voters regarded themselves as independent.

The general decline in party identification is part of a national trend, but it is probably a more complicated matter in the South than in the remainder of the country because of the existence of at least two, and possibly three, Democratic Parties in the area, particularly in the deep South:

(1) The state and/or local party, which furnishes the Democratic label for most state and local elected officials, but is to varying degrees still at odds with the national Democratic Party and regularly leads its followers into a protest vote for the Republicans or a third party in national elections. (2) A struggling national Democratic Party, whose main base of voter support is likely to be black. (3) A possible third Democratic Party of a local nature, which is either formally organized or is implicitly recognized as a black counter to the local white party, with greater or lesser ties to the national party depending on the strategy involved in a given election.

The Republicans have not been able to capitalize on these circumstances as some hopeful members of that party had predicted at one point. To what extent this is a temporary matter associated with the general condition of the party following Watergate is an open question, because earlier signs (including the “Southern Strategy” of the 1960’s) gave strong promise of Republican competitiveness and possibly even Republican dominance in the South. The area is, after all, now conservative not only in the cultural and social senses, but in the economic sense in which the country was generally conservative from the 1870’s to 1932; that is, the South is in the process of industrial and urban development, with all of the optimism associated with that phase of American capitalism. Over the past 30 years every Southern state has made a strong, publicly organized effort to attract new industrial investments, income has been going up, jobs have been created, and a new suburban middle class with natural Republican proclivities has developed in the metropolitan areas (made up in part of newly arrived industrial managerial types from other sections). The Republicans have enjoyed some local successes. A few states have elected Republican governors in recent years, but in several of these the gains appear to have been temporary. And although Southerners are now accustomed to Republican opposition in most elections, in only two or three states has the success been sufficient even to hint at party competitiveness in the major arenas.

So the South remains strangely divided and uncertain in its party and factional orientation. Now presidentially Republican, the region’s governments remain for the most part in the hands of ostensible Democrats, who vary widely in their political attitudes and bear little resemblance to the formerly identifiable groups in Southern politics (even though they may be referred to by such old names as Populists, Whigs, Bourbons, or by the names of former organization leaders whose organizations no longer exist, e. g. , Byrd supporters in Virginia or Long supporters in Louisiana). Southern politics thus continues to reflect the organizational chaos created by the struggles from the late 1940’s through the middle 1960’s, even though the racial issues at the center of such struggles have been reconciled in practice and given external acceptance to an extent that most earlier observers would not have dared to predict.


An additional characteristic of recent Southern politics that is worth more notation than can be given it here is its cosmopolitanism. In part this is related to a change in political style in response to the urbanization and industrialization of the South and the shift in campaign techniques from the personal to the electronic media. But it also reaches to the substantive issues of the times. The change is most effectively illustrated at the gubernatorial level.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a series of relatively young, urban and articulate governors were elected in all parts of the South. These included Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, Jimmie Carter of Georgia, Reubin Askew of Florida, Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, and John West of South Carolina on the Democratic side, and Linwood Holton of Virginia, Winfield Dunn of Tennessee and James Holshouser of North Carolina as Republicans. Although they differ substantially in ideology and even in their origins (Holton comes out of the relatively liberal mountain Republican tradition, for example ; and Jimmy Carter, who passes himself off as a “peanut farmer” and then gives the game away by the application of a cultivated Southern accent to his extensive vocabulary and impeccable rhetoric, is a thorough-going liberal with some residues of Southern populism in his attitudes towards issues), all of these men have a middle American presentability and a low-key manner which make them adaptable to the demands of television and capable of symbolically representing a considerable cross-section of their respective constituencies. By contrast with such relatively recent figures on all sides of the political spectrum as Eugene Talmadge, Earl Long, Orville Faubus, Ross Barnett, and James Folsom, these new types might well come from any part of the United States.

The emergence of the newly sophisticated Southern politics is obviously related to the social and economic changes in the South since World War II, changes which have brought the South, by means of a combination of the area’s own efforts and desires and federal actions (which have more often than not run counter to the desires of local majorities), more into congruence with the social, economic and even political characterististics of the United States as a whole than at any time since the Civil War. In view of the problems of the contemporary “post”-industrial society, this may not be an unmixed blessing.

In the policy area, too, the new breed of politician has made an impact. The “agenda” of government in most of the Southern states now resembles that of the other states in its focus on more effective policies and fiscal support for welfare, education, transportation, services and conditions of life in urban areas, bases of economic development, health care, etc. , etc. Conservatives as well as liberals are thus adapting (though in different ways) to the continuously enlarging role of government in every aspect of life, even though preferences may still be in favor of the individualistic, personal, family, and private associational orientation generally characteristic of the older South.

Former Governor Dunn of Tennessee is a good illustration of how the new political type moves or is moved in unexpected directions by accession to high office. Dunn is a successful Memphis dentist and son of a former Congressman (one term) from Meridian, Mississippi. He entered politics as an upper middle class, suburban, conservative supporter of Goldwater. Outgoing and attractive, he was a good television candidate and ran a frankly “image based” campaign in which his main verbal appeal was “You don’t haveto vote Democratic just because you always have.” Although no ideological liberal, neither did Dunn turn out to be an ideological conservative in office. Instead, he assumed the attitude of the chief representative of the whole state of Tennessee and gained a substantial introduction to a wide variety of social groups and classes within its boundaries. And he tried with varying degrees of success (depending in part on who makes the judgment) to develop policies for coping with Tennessee’s problems in the areas of revenue development, environmental problems, equal opportunity employment, and most other areas of current social legislation and administration. In short, Dunn became, to use the jargonistic expression of the analyst who has no sense of historical periodization, a “modern” governor.

Regardless of the future direction that the new “New South” may take politically after it has had an opportunity to shake down the effects of 25 or more years of turmoil, those of us who are skeptical about the perfectibility of man and society and cynical about computerized campaign management and made-to-order candidates will indulge in the current wave of nostalgia by regretting the passing of the old politics, if for no other reason than its superior entertainment value.

Who today, for instance, can match the rich metaphorical usage of Earl Long of Louisiana, the self-styled “last of the red hot pappas?” When Earl was asked to give a reaction to his involuntary treatment in a private psychiatric hospital in Texas following a collapse while haranguing the state legislature during his last term as Governor (1956—1960), he replied that he felt “like a muley cow coming up out of a dipping vat.” For the benefit of those who think Earl Long was just another Southern demagogue—an impression the media did nothing to correct—it should be pointed out that his collapse occurred while he was fighting against the passage of a White Citizens’ Council bill to purge blacks from voting rolls in Louisiana. As an authentic heir to the populist creed, Earl gloried in identifying with the little people and attacking the airs and pretensions of the silk stocking crowd. He once charged deLesseps Morrison, his opponent in a gubernatorial campaign, with wearing 200-dollar suits (add almost 20 years of inflation to arrive at the real dollar value of such sartorial splendor), and closed his case by noting that “a 200 dollar suit on old Earl would look like socks on a rooster.”

By Jefferson’s standards we are a generation and a half removed from the beginning of the end of the rural rhetoric that Long brought to near perfection, so the great majority of voters in the new South have no memory of its evocative powers, and many will not even be familar enough with the experiences on which it drew to appreciate the images. But then, in terms of another of those old-fashioned Southern characterizations, Earl Long was a “natural man” and even the new Rousseauists in our midst are unlikely to know what that means anymore.


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