The term southern bloc refers to a coalition of southern Democratic representatives and senators who united with Republicans to advance shared legislative interests, principally to prevent federal involvement in race relations in the U.S. South. The seniority of many southern bloc members enhanced their legislative influence because they held so many congressional committee chairmanships. The “southern bloc” had political connections to the “southern strategy” in presidential politics that emerged in the 1960s.
The southern bloc was another instance of the sectionalism that had always unified southerners in both houses of Congress. From the beginning of the nation, southern interests had voted together regarding issues of slavery. Beginning in the 1930s in an effort to stop Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court, southern Democrats voted with Republicans against nonsouthern Democrats. The alliance of southern Democrats and Republicans formed a “conservative coalition.” The southern bloc and the farm bloc also shared interests, for as V. O. Key Jr. noted about Congress in the 1940s: “Between the extreme of urban industrialism and of prosperous, rural Republicanism, the poor, southern Democracy occupies a position in the political center” (1949, p. 378). Recent instances of the southern sectionalism that shaped the southern bloc include the occasion during the Reagan years when several southern House Democrats (“boll weevils”) joined with Republicans to enact the president’s budget. In 1993 southern Democrats and Republicans coalesced to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Southern U.S. senators, given the Senate rules allowing filibusters (unlimited debate), have played a critical role in the work of the southern bloc. Tom T. Connally of Texas (1877–1963) was among the first leaders of the bloc in the Senate, and Richard B. Russell Jr. of Georgia (1897–1971) led the Senate’s southern bloc between 1945 and 1969. Before the 1960s, virtually all southern senators were members of the bloc. Some did not formally ally themselves with it: Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and Ralph W. Yarborough of Texas. The Declaration of Constitutional Principles (March 12, 1956)—the so-called “southern manifesto”—which assailed the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954 and 1955) was signed by nineteen of the twenty-two southern senators (not signing were Kefauver, Johnson, and Albert A. Gore Sr. of Tennessee) and by 82 of the 106 southern House members.
Southern senators did not have majority support for voting against federal intervention in race relations. As a minority, the bloc resorted to delaying tactics allowed by the Senate rules in order to prevent passage of important civil rights legislation. Filibusters by the southern bloc that succeeded included those against anti-lynching bills in 1935 and 1938; anti-poll tax measures in 1942, 1944, and 1946; fair-employment practices legislation in 1946; and voting rights bills in 1960. In 1957, having significantly watered down a civil rights bill, the southern bloc did not filibuster it. But one of its members, then-Democrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, filibustered the bill for more than twenty-four hours.
Between 1938 and 1963 the southern bloc, allying with some western Democrats and Republicans beat back all eleven attempts to end filibusters on civil rights legislation. Such attempts seek to invoke cloture, a procedure to end debate and vote on the measure being discussed. From its enactment in 1917 to its amendment in 1975, Senate Rule XXII required a vote by two-thirds of the Senate to end debate; in 1975 that proportion was reduced to three-fifths, so that sixty senators could halt a filibuster. On June 10, 1964, after a filibuster lasting seventy-four days, the longest filibuster in history, the Senate successfully imposed cloture for the first time on a civil rights bill. The Senate also invoked cloture on filibusters against civil rights bills in 1965 (voting rights) and 1968 (open housing).
In presidential politics, a “southern strategy” sought to unite the white South and Republicans to mutual advantage. “Southern strategy” was a pejorative phrase charging Republicans with racist or at least political intentions to court southern white support by taking more pleasing positions on desegregation. In 1964 the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), who had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, carried the five Deep South states with a hardedged southern strategy, but lost in a landslide to Democratic nominee Lyndon Johnson. In 1968 the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, employed a softer southern strategy to curb the threat posed by the American Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace (1919–1998). Senator Thurmond, who had run as the States’ Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrat) presidential candidate in 1948 and switched to the Republican Party in 1964, was a key ally in this strategy. Thurmond battled Wallace, claiming a vote for Wallace was essentially a vote for the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978). The winner, Nixon, carried South Carolina and four other southern states not in the Deep South.
In the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, with southern whites identifying more with the Republican Party, the Republican nominee, George W. Bush, abandoned the southern strategy of previous Republican presidential candidates to seek greater black and Hispanic support, and he did make some headway among Hispanic voters, but not among black voters.
Since the 1960s the political bases that supported the southern bloc have been changed by the growing black vote in the South, which is increasingly critical to the election of Democrats; by Republican gains in the former solidly Democratic South; and by the social and economic convergence of the South with the non-South. Conservative southern Democrats have largely vanished as conservative southern voters now ally more with Republicans. In the 1980s and later, civil rights measures received considerable support from southern Democrats, and the conservative coalition appeared less frequently in congressional voting. Indeed, Congressional Quarterly discontinued its annual report on conservative coalition voting after the 1998 session of Congress, in which the conservative coalition appeared on only 6 percent of the roll call votes.
SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education, 1954; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Democratic Party, U.S.; Dixiecrats; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Kefauver, Estes; Key, V. O., Jr.; Nixon, Richard M.; Politics; Politics, Southern; Republican Party; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; South, The (USA); Southern Strategy; Thurmond, Strom
Black, Earl, and Merle Black. 2002. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fite, Gilbert C. 1991. Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Key, V. O., Jr. 1949. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf.
Murphy, Reg, and Hal Gulliver. 1971. The Southern Strategy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Harold W. Stanley