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BACKLASH. In the mid-1950s the word "backlash" entered the American political lexicon. Initially, it referred to the hostile reaction of conservative Democratic southerners to the liberal stance adopted by the national party on domestic issues, particularly race relations. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 increased the alienation of southern Democrats. In the 1960s the term achieved prominence, and its application spread to the North. The national Democratic Party adopted a series of reform programs, such as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968, that evoked opposition among traditional Democratic supporters. "Backlash" came to mean the hostile response to these initiatives among blocs of rank-and-file voters considered Democrats since at least the New Deal era.

During the 1960s the term increasingly identified voters who supported the presidential candidacy of George C. Wallace. In 1964 Wallace entered several northern Democratic primaries and captured a significant minority of the vote. In his 1968 presidential bid, Wallace also benefited from the backlash of white citizens. Nevertheless, at this time "backlash" characterized not only regular Democrats' reactions against reform legislation and support for Wallace but also, more generally, resistance to reform among white citizens who felt that Afro-Americans were demanding too much, too fast, with too much violence. According to some observers, when non-violent protest by Afro-Americans quickly gave way to massive civil disorder, backlash against these events even consisted of a change in attitudes among previously supportive white citizens, many of whom recoiled against the demands by Afro-Americans for equality of treatment in housing, education, law enforcement, and employment.


Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Cohodas, Nadine. Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Movements in America. New York: Routledge, 1997.


David J.Olson

See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; Conservatism .


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back·lash / ˈbakˌlash/ • n. [in sing.] a strong and adverse reaction by a large number of people, esp. to a social or political development: a public backlash against racism.