The Civil Rights Act, and the GOP “Southern Strategy” Part I: The Actual History
Let’s begin with some actual history.
The Republican Party was established in 1856 as an anti-slavery party. Its first Platform called for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, promoted the admission to the Union of Kansas as a Free state, and opposed the further spread of slavery into the western territories, as well as Mormonism. The 1856 Republican platform is here.
By 1860, the Republicans declared in their platform:
That we brand the recent reopening of the African slave trade, under the cover of our national flag, aided by perversions of judicial power, as a crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age; and we call upon Congress to take prompt and efficient measures for the total and final suppression of that execrable traffic.
They were in favor of trade protections, pro-immigration, decent wages for workers, and public works.
The Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won a majority of votes in the 1860 four-way election, sweeping the Northern states, California and Oregon. Stephen Douglas, representing the Northern Democratic party, won only one state: Missouri. The Southern Democratic candidate, John Breckenridge, won the Deep South, Maryland and Texas, and the Constitional Union candidate, John Bell, won the Southern border states of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The result, as we all know, was the secession of the Southern states to form the Confederacy, and the resulting Civil War that caused the deaths of 3/4 of a million Americans. Slavery was abolished, and the freed slaves were given the right to vote. This was accomplished by members of the Republican party.
The former states of the defeated Confederacy steadfastly refused to elect Republican candidates, consistently voting for their own brand of Democrat so that they became known as the “Solid South.”
Fast-forward 100 years.
The Democratic Party in the Northern and Western states, unlike in the South, continued to promote more progressive policies, from the “New Deal” to President Harry Truman’s commitment to Civil Rights in 1948. President Truman’s Executive Order desegregating the U.S. military in 1948 not only convinced many African-American voters to choose the Democrats, it also caused the Democrats in the South, led by Strom Thurmond, to declare themselves “Dixiecrats,” the first step in separating themselves from the mainstream Democratic party.
During this time, the GOP was still fairly progressive. The 1956 Republican platform supported organized labor, civil rights for minorities, equal pay for women, unemployment protection and minimum wage laws, public education, public sector employment, immigration, low-cost healthcare for the needy and free vaccinations for everyone.
President Eisenhower issued and Executive Order, and sent federal agents to enforce school desegregation, to the anger of the Dixiecrats who voted overwhelmingly for Ike’s Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson even though he was just as much of a liberal as Ike.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the Southern states, with the significant exception of Mississippi, which gave its votes to Harry F. Byrd and Strom Thurmond, running on a 3rd party ticket.
In 1963, President Kennedy—a Democrat— proposed a Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act passed in Congress in June, 1964 and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
House of Representatives For/Against
Northern Democrats: 145–9 (94–6%)
Northern Republicans: 138–24 (85–15%)
Southern Democrats: 7–87 (7–93%)
Southern Republicans: 0–10 (0–100%)
Northern Democrats: 45–1 (98–2%) (only Robert Byrd of West Virginia voted against)
Northern Republicans: 27–5 (84–16%) (Barry Goldwater of Arizona, 1964 GOP nominee, voted against)
Southern Democrats: 1–20 (5–95%) (only Ralph Yarborough of Texas voted in favor)
Southern Republicans: 0–1 (0–100%) (John Tower of Texas)
Overall, 94% of Southern Democrats and 100% of Southern Republicans voted AGAINST the Civil Rights Act, while 96% of Northern Democrats and 85% of Northern Republicans voted FOR. Even taking into account the primary divide being regional and not by party, more Democrats, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of their party votes, supported the Civil Rights Act than Republicans.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Dixiecrats Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms joined the Republican party. The 1964 Republican candidate for President, Barry Goldwater, who voted against the CRA, swept the Southern states, the first time a Republican had ever done so.
By 1968, the Republicans had already decided that the minority vote was lost to them, and they were going to focus on winning the votes of the disgruntled white demographic. As Nixon’s political strategist, Kevin Phillips, explained:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “[N-word], [N-word], [N-word].” By 1968 you can’t say “[N-word]”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…
“We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “[N-word], [N-word].”
The truth is that there was very little that was subconscious about the G.O.P.’s relentless appeal to racist whites. Tired of losing elections, it saw an opportunity to renew itself by opening its arms wide to white voters who could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for blacks.
The payoff has been huge. Just as the Democratic Party would have been crippled in the old days without the support of the segregationist South, today’s Republicans would have only a fraction of their current political power without the near-solid support of voters who are hostile to blacks.
When Democrats revolted against racism, the G.O.P. rallied to its banner.
Ronald Reagan, the G.O.P.’s biggest hero, opposed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960’s. And he began his general election campaign in 1980 with a powerfully symbolic appearance in Philadelphia, Miss., where three young civil rights workers were murdered in the summer of 1964. He drove the crowd wild when he declared: ”I believe in states’ rights.”
In spite of the voluminous documentation of the GOP’s transformation 50 years ago from progressive to primitive, right-wingers have lately been making the claim that this never really happened.