How Republicans and Democrats switched on civil rights

Ted Cruz’ Dixiecrat ramblings are half-truths

Allison WB
Feb 13, 2017 · 5 min read
President Lyndon Johnson (D) signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year Dixiecrats became Republicans.

Senator Ted Cruz recently defended his party’s racism by essentially saying, Well, Democrats are racist, too!

His evidence: Dixiecrats, the keepers of Jim Crow. But the Dixiecrats largely left the Democrats to become Republicans.

Here’s why that happened.

1. Republicans and Democrats after the Civil War

1866 Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Race. Clymer is a Democrat and Geary is a Republican.

It’s true that many of the first Ku Klux Klan members were Democrats. It’s also true that the early Democratic Party opposed civil rights. But there’s more to it.

The Civil War-era GOP wasn’t that into civil rights. They were more interested in punishing the South for seceding, and monopolizing the new black vote. (More on this in a future post.)

In any event, by the 1890s, Republicans had begun to distance themselves from civil rights.

2. Democrats v Republicans on Jim Crow

During this time, African Americans were largely disenfranchised. There was no African-American voting bloc. Neither party pursued civil rights policies — it wasn’t worth their while.

North Carolina, 1938. Between 1877 and 1974, North Carolina only had one Republican governor. The majority of Jim Crow governors were Democrats. Photo Credit

Democrats dominated Southern politics throughout the Jim Crow Era. It’s fair to say that Democratic governors and legislatures are responsible for creating and upholding white supremacist policies.

Southern Democrats were truly awful.

3. President Truman Integrates the Troops: 1948

African Americans fought and died for a country that doubted their equality.

At war’s end, President Harry Truman, a Democrat, used an Executive Order to integrate the troops. (That order was not executed until 1963, however because: racism.)

These racist Southern Democrats got so mad that their chief goblin, Senator Strom Thurmond, decided to run for President against Truman. They called themselves the Dixiecrats.

South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond was a fair-weather Democrat but a committed racist.

Of course, he lost. Thurmond remained a Democrat until 1964. He continued to oppose civil rights as a Democrat. He gave the longest filibuster in Senate history — speaking for 24 hours against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

4. The Party of Kennedy v the Party of Nixon in the Civil Rights Era

At the time of Kennedy’s election, his views on civil rights represented the views of most Northerners, not necessarily most Democrats.

Two things started happening at the same time:

  • Racist Democrats were getting antsy
  • Neither party could afford to ignore civil rights anymore

In 1960 Kennedy defeated Nixon. At the time of his election, the both parties unevenly supported civil rights. But President Kennedy decided to move forward.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Johnson continued Kennedy’s civil rights focus.

As Southerner and a Democrat, President Johnson was unusually open to civil rights.

As you can imagine, that did not sit particularly well with most Southern Democrats. This is when Strom Thurmond flew the coop for good.

In fact, a greater percentage of Congressional Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than did Democrats. Support for the Act followed geographic, not party, lines.

Governor Geroge Wallace of Alabama was a life-long Democrat. He vehemently defended segregation, but later apologized. Here, he physically blocks the integration of the University of Alabama in 1963. He is being served by the US Attorney General — another Democrat. Photo Credit

Soon after, the Republicans came up with their Southern Strategy — a plan to woo white Southern voters to the party for the 1968 election.

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations had advanced civil rights, largely through national legislation and direct executive actions. So, the Southern Strategy was the opposite — states’ rights and no integration.

As in the Civil War, the concepts of “states’ rights” and “tradition,” were codes for “maintaining white supremacy.”

Starting with Thurmond in 1964, and continuing throughout the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Dixiecrats left the Democrats for the Republicans.

Two former Democrats, President Ronald Reagan (R) and Senator Strom Thurmond (R). Reagan was not a Dixiecrat. He left the party in 1962. Photo Credit

5. Those Racist Dixiecrats Create Mainstream Republican Policy

But their ideas formed modern GOP’s core platform.

Jesse Helms successfully made the case that “minorities” were preventing white people from getting job.

In a campaign ad, Democrat-turned-Republican Jesse Helms said “racial quotas” prevented white people from getting jobs. The lie of racial quotas persists in the GOP’s rejection of affirmative action. Racial quotas are illegal.

Take the idea of “special interests.” Here’s Helms’ view, as a Republican:

“Are civil rights only for Negroes? While women in Washington who have been raped and mugged on the streets in broad daylight have experienced the most revolting sort of violation of their civil rights. The hundreds of others who have had their purses snatched by Negro hoodlums may understandably insist that their right to walk the street unmolested was violated.” — Television commentary, 1963, quoted in The Charlotte Observer.

But you would think that Ted Cruz would have a clearer understanding of the connections between the Dixiecrats and the Republican Party.

He loves Jesse Helms.

Cruz wishes there were “100 more like Jesse Helms.” He speaks in the Hertiage Foundation’s Jesse Helms Speakers Series in 2015.

Looking to do your part? One way to get involved is to read the Indivisible Guide, which is written by former congressional staffers and is loaded with best practices for making Congress listen. Or follow this publication, connect with us on Twitter, and join us on Facebook.

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