Dixiecrats (a combination of “Dixie,” referring to the Old South of the Confederacy, and “Democrats”), formally known as the States’ Rights Democratic Party, were a splinter party formed by Southern Democrats in 1948 to oppose President Harry S. Truman’s civil rights program. The term has also been used to refer to racially conservative Southern Democrats since then. With South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond leading the ticket, Dixiecrats carried four states but failed to stop Truman’s reelection. The core Dixiecrat ideologies of “states’ rights” and white supremacy have their roots in the antebellum South and still reverberate in the partisan alignment in the United States in the early twenty-first century.
The Democratic National Convention in 1948 approved a strong civil rights plank despite firm opposition from Southern delegates:
We again state our belief that the racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on the basis of equality with all citizens guaranteed by the Constitution.…We call upon Congress to [act] in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental rights: (1) the right of full and equal political participation, (2) the right of equal opportunity in employment, (3) the right of security of person, (4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation. (Key 1984, p. 335)
In his fiery convention speech supporting this language, then-Minneapolis Mayor and Senate candidate (and future vice president and Democratic presidential nominee) Hubert H. Humphrey (1911–1978) did not mince words:
To those who say … that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late! To those who say … that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights! (History News Network 2002)
On July 17, just days after the walkout, party leaders from Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina met in Birmingham, Alabama. They formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, nominated Thurmond for president and Governor Fielding Wright (1895–1956) of Mississippi for vice president, and issued a “declaration of principles” stating their opposition to “the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program” (Frederickson 2001, p. 240).
In an effort to reach out to the non-Southern Republican members of the Conservative Coalition forged in the 1930s to oppose President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s more ambitious New Deal programs, Thurmond’s campaign rhetoric focused largely on states’ rights and limited government, leading some conservatives more than fifty years later to claim that these were the true bases of the Dixiecrat movement. This view, however, is naive at best: white supremacy was the party’s raison d’être and driving force. As Thurmond thundered to the Birmingham meeting, “There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into schools and into our homes” (Frederickson 2001, p. 242). The party’s platform explicitly supported racial segregation and opposed all efforts to end it as “utterly destructive of the social, economic and political life of the Southern people.” Local appeals for votes were also perfectly clear in their intentions—an official sample ballot from the Mississippi State Democratic Party declared:
A vote for the Truman electors is a direct order to our Congressmen and Senators from Mississippi to vote for passage of Truman’s so-called civil-rights program in the next Congress. This means the vicious FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Committee]—anti-poll tax—anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever. (Mississippi Historical Society, undated)
In the end, the Dixiecrats carried the four states in which they were the official Democratic ticket and received one electoral vote from a “faithless” Tennessee elector. The ticket received 1,169,134 votes in total, 55 percent of which were from the four states they carried, and 99 percent of which were from Southern or border states. Even in the South, they received only 20 percent of the vote, while nationwide, they received only 2.4 percent. Thurmond and Wright received thirty-nine electoral votes, but that was not nearly sufficient to deny Truman his majority. Despite the loss, Dixiecrats remained strong enough in the Congress to block meaningful civil rights laws until the 1960s.
The historical roots of the Dixiecrat movement go deep into U.S. history—the Dixiecrat core ideologies of “states’ rights” and white supremacy have their roots in the antebellum South and the political philosophy of John Calhoun (1782–1850). The Civil War and Reconstruction cemented these philosophies in the South with the region becoming the one-party “Solid South” after Reconstruction. From 1880 through 1924, with very few exceptions, Southern and border states voted reliably Democratic for president; local and state offices were similarly dominated by Democrats. Meanwhile, African Americans, where they could vote, were loyal Republicans, based on the same Civil War alignment. Through the 1930s, both parties kept racial issues out of electoral politics, although cases on segregation and voting rights were playing out in the courts.
The first major break in the Solid South occurred in 1928 when several southern states (excluding the four later carried by Thurmond) went for Herbert Hoover, because of the Democratic nomination of New York Governor Al Smith—a big city Northern Catholic and a “wet” to boot. In Southern Politics (1984), however, V. O. Key showed that voting patterns of “Hoovercrats” in 1928 were the precise opposite of Dixiecrats in 1948. These states all returned to the fold throughout the New Deal era.
Issues of racial justice returned to the political stage in the 1940s, beginning with A. Philip Randolph’s (1889–1979) March on Washington movement (1941), which resulted in Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802 establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and banning employment discrimination by defense contractors. The publication of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma in 1944 made American racism an international embarrassment and forced mainstream political and intellectual leaders to reluctantly reexamine racial issues. During the Roosevelt era, African Americans shifted to the Democratic Party as well because of Roosevelt’s progressive social policies, becoming key components of the party’s electoral coalition by the 1940s.
World War II (1939–1945) created the bitter irony of African American troops fighting and dying overseas to fight Adolf Hitler’s racist ideology only to return home to Jim Crow. (The importance of this as a grassroots catalyst of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is often overlooked.) The irony was not lost on Truman, who in 1947 began moving toward a civil rights program. This included a strongly worded speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in June, the publication of the report of his Committee on Civil Rights in October (which recommended the steps that were later included in the 1948 Democratic Party platform), and Truman’s strong endorsement of the report in his January 1948 State of the Union speech. With fair warning, the Southern Democratic maneuvering to fight Truman and his policies thus began several months before the convention.
After Truman, with Republicans beginning to make incursions into Southern electoral politics, Democrats played down racial issues to avoid another revolt. Meanwhile, Republicans became publicly associated with civil rights, with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s forced integration of Little Rock public schools (1957), and the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960, passed despite Senate filibusters by the conservative “boll weevil” Southern Democrats. Thus, issues other than race dominated the elections of 1952, 1956, and 1960. In contrast to 1928, the Solid South provided Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson’s only electoral votes, including all four Dixiecrat states in 1952.
With the 1964 election, the Democratic Party decisively donned the mantle of civil rights party, while the Republicans backed off. Democrats passed the stronger Civil Rights Act of 1964 (over another filibuster) and President Lyndon Johnson advocated passionately for a new voting rights act with federal enforcement; Republican candidate Barry Goldwater opposed these measures on the grounds of states’ rights and limited government. While Goldwater himself was not overtly segregationist, he was not unaware of what a states’ rights agenda meant in the South of the 1960s. Thus, it was no coincidence that in Johnson’s landslide election the only states Goldwater carried, other than his home state of Arizona, were the four Dixiecrat states plus Georgia. Thurmond (now a senator) switched parties, leading a gradual movement of Dixiecrats to the Republican Party, and bringing their issues with them.
The shift in the parties’ platforms was clearly perceived by the voters as well. The 1960 National Election Study survey showed that roughly equal percentages of Americans believed that either Democrats or Republicans were the party most likely to follow civil rights policies, with 70 percent of respondents perceiving “no difference” on school segregation and 62 percent finding no difference on policies of the FEPC. In the 1964 study, most respondents chose the Democrats as the party most likely to follow civil rights policies (50.2% on school segregation and 54.3% on employment practices), while only a small minority (6.1% on school segregation and 6.5% on employment practices) picked the Republicans.
In 1968, with Democratic Party support for civil rights now personified by nominee Humphrey, Alabama Governor George Wallace (1919–1998) attempted to revive the Dixiecrat movement through his American Independent Party. Simultaneously, Republican candidate Richard Nixon’s (1913–1994) campaign adopted a “Southern Strategy” designed to split apart once and for all the New Deal coalition that had included African Americans, urban ethnic Catholics and other blue-collar workers, and white Southerners. Both Nixon and Wallace campaigned on “law and order,” benefiting from a white backlash against recent race riots, while Wallace added the familiar focus on states’ rights and integration. Wallace carried five Southern states, including three of the Dixiecrat states, and won forty-six electoral votes—not enough to deny Nixon the election, despite the very close popular vote. Wallace’s national appeal was far stronger than Thurmond’s; he received 13.5 percent of the vote nationally, including at least 10 percent in a number of states outside the South.
The Southern Strategy contributed to a period of sustained Republican success at the presidential level, with Republicans winning seven of ten elections through 2004. Nevertheless, the long-awaited Republican realignment failed to materialize; Democrats controlled the House of Representatives until 1994 and the Senate for all but six of those years, due in part to the presence in both the House and the Senate of substantial numbers of Southern Democrats. Conservative white Southern voters split their tickets between conservative Democrats at the local and state level, while voting Republican at the national level, creating a “split-level realignment.” While overtly racist rhetoric was not a factor during this period, many social scientists found new forms of “symbolic racism,” or “coded racism” in such issues as welfare, crime, cities, and immigration that appealed to white voters’ underlying racial resentments. Others have noted the finding that most white voters express a belief in broad principles of racial equality, but oppose specific policies designed to address them.
In the early 1990s many conservative Southern Democrats retired, while others were defeated, leading to the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994, with Southerners holding all of the top leadership posts in both houses. Ironically, a number of white Democratic incumbents were defeated because the creation of “majority-minority” districts removed loyal Democratic African American voters from their districts.
The electoral sea change of 1994 concluded the process begun with the convention walkout forty-six years earlier—the switch of southern conservative white Democrats to the Republican Party. From the 1950s when there were essentially no Southern Republicans in Congress to the 1980s when the Democrats led slightly, to the 1990s when Southern Democrats became an endangered species—Republicans began to hold the vast majority of Southern congressional seats. It is a testament to the power of party identification as a lifetime psychological attachment that it took the death or retirement of the pre–civil rights generation—both in government and in the electorate—to accomplish this.
Along with the shift of Dixiecrats to the Republican Party, this period also saw the death of the boll weevils’ opposites, Northern liberal “gypsy moth” Republicans. While this species was never as important as its Southern counterpart, they combined to require bipartisan coalitions for all major legislation as recently as the early 1990s. Also because of a combination of retirements and electoral losses (the 2006 elections left Christopher Shays the sole Republican House member in all of the twenty-two seats of New England), the North in 2007 was even more dominated by Democrats than the South was by Republicans, with party loyalty (and party polarization) in congressional voting at historical highs in both parties. This state of affairs, with its intense ideological and regional polarizations, may be the Dixiecrats’ most enduring legacy of all.
In an odd footnote to Dixiecrat history, in December 2002, incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, was forced to step down from his leadership post after making a statement at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party that seemed to endorse the Dixiecrat platform of 1948: “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either” (Edsall 2002, p. A06). Following Lott’s reelection in 2006 and the Democratic takeovers, Lott was voted minority whip, making him the number-two Republican leader in the Senate.
SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Democratic Party, U.S.; Desegregation; Jim Crow; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Key, V. O., Jr.; Minorities; New Deal, The; Nixon, Richard M.; Republican Party; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Segregation; Southern Strategy; Thurmond, Strom; Truman, Harry S.
Edsall, Thomas B. 2002. Lott Decried for Part of Salute to Thurmond: GOP Senate Leader Hails Colleague’s Run As Segregationist. Washington Post, December 7: A06.
Frederickson, Kari. 2001. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
History News Network. 2002. The Speech by Hubert Humphrey that Helped Trigger Strom Thurmond’s Candidacy for President in 1948. December 16. George Mason University. http://hnn.us/articles/1165.html.
Key, V. O., Jr., with Alexander Heard. 1984. Southern Politics in State and Nation. Rev. ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Mississippi Historical Society. (undated). This is the Official Democratic Ticket in Mississippi. Mississippi History Now. http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/features/feature7/ms_demo_ballot.html.
Rae, Nicol C. 1994. Southern Democrats. New York: Oxford University Press.
Joel David Bloom
"Dixiecrats." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/dixiecrats
"Dixiecrats." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/dixiecrats
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