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328 pp., 61/8 x/ 91/4, 11 illus., notes, bibl., index

$55.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2594-8

$18.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-4910-3

Published: Spring 2001

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the Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968

by Kari Frederickson

Copyright (c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


In the light of history, the states' rights campaign of 1948 can be seen as an outgrowth of the thinking of the rednecks, the coonasses, and the hillbillies. But it was acceptable to the political elite as well.
—J. Oliver Emmerich, Dixiecrat speech writer and publisher, McComb Enterprise-Journal
On April 8, 1996, ninety-three-year-old Strom Thurmond formally announced his candidacy for an unprecedented seventh term as U.S. senator from South Carolina. The state's "living legend" vowed to continue his fight for the cornerstones of conservatism: a strong military, a balanced budget, and a revamped welfare system. "I shall not give up on our mission to right the 40-year wrongs of liberalism," he declared.[1] Despite his popularity, many South Carolinians doubted whether the senior senator was physically up to the task of another term. Other voters chafed at the thought of turning out the venerable old gentleman. For those who had achieved voting age since the mid-1950s, Thurmond had represented them their whole lives.

Just about anyone you meet in South Carolina, it seems, has a personal anecdote about the senator or can tell you about someone who has received prompt assistance on a thorny bureaucratic matter from Thurmond's legendary staff. One story in particular illustrates the extensive reach of Thurmond's office. A friend recently told me of the events surrounding the death of her grandfather, a longtime South Carolina politician, who had passed away late one night. At 6:00 a.m., barely an hour after the ambulance had taken the body away and before all immediate family members had been notified, her grandmother received a call of condolence from Senator Thurmond. "How he found out about granddaddy, we never knew," my friend exclaimed. "It wasn't even daylight yet. It was like a call from God."[2] It is hardly surprising, then, that in this conservative state with its reverence for tradition, folks should shudder at the thought of electing a new senator. By excelling at constituent contact and through sheer longevity, Thurmond has personalized the office of U.S. senator to the point where the two seem inseparable. He has become an institution.

It took Strom Thurmond almost fifty years to liberate himself from the limitations of traditional partisan politics. Along the way, he played a pivotal role in the political transformation of the South. Raised a Democrat in the one-party South, young Thurmond developed an early interest in politics, often tagging along with his father to hear rabble-rousing stump speakers in the town squares of Edgefield County. As an ambitious state legislator, Thurmond strongly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, although like many southern Democrats, he grew impatient with what he considered the more radical aspects of the later New Deal. Thurmond won election as governor in 1946 as a moderately liberal Democrat promoting bureaucratic efficiency and industrial development. As the state's chief executive, he advocated state repeal of the poll tax and moved swiftly in 1947 to use state machinery to apprehend and prosecute a lynch mob.

Not oblivious to the escalating racial tensions in his region, Thurmond and others like him believed the South's myriad of problems to be, at heart, economic. However, unlike organizations such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) and the Southern Regional Council, which linked economic and racial justice and hoped to achieve both through a combination of labor union organization and black voter registration, Thurmond advocated new industry and economic growth as the key to regional stability. The South, Thurmond argued, had long been held in an unequal, colonial status by the northern economic colossus, and only through economic parity could the region prosper and achieve racial harmony.[3] Soon Thurmond's liberalism, based on a prodevelopment philosophy, had diverged from the mainstream of the national Democratic Party. The South Carolina governor counted himself among a growing number of disgruntled southern Democrats who felt increasingly uncomfortable within a national party that championed the power of the state to redress grievances and ensure economic and racial justice.

Tensions came to a head in 1948 when, in an unprecedented move, President Harry Truman placed himself squarely behind civil rights legislation. Truman advocated federal protection against lynching, anti-poll tax legislation, the establishment of the permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), and the prohibition of segregation in interstate transportation. For the first time since Reconstruction, the status of African Americans had become a national issue. Many white southerners believed these measures signaled the beginning of an insidious campaign to destroy cherished regional "customs and institutions."

Hoping to stem this progressive tide and recover their former preeminent position within the national party ranks, a group of disgruntled southern Democrats formed the States' Rights Democratic Party and chose Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Although the new party—soon nicknamed the Dixiecrats—was primarily a protest vehicle, it was not intended to be merely symbolic; the goal of the States' Rights Democrats was to upset the reelection bid of Harry Truman. By capturing the 127 electoral votes of the (historically) Solid South, they felt they could prevent either major party candidate from winning a majority, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives. In the House the Dixiecrats sought to exact concessions favorable to the South, but this was not to be. The Dixiecrats won only four southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—and 39 electoral votes. They failed to alter the outcome of the election and the future course of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, although voters across the South did not rally en masse behind the Dixiecrat banner, the election signified an important moment in southern politics.

When political scientist V. O. Key analyzed southern politics in the late 1940s, the perverse turn-of-the-century political developments and institutions—disfranchisement, malapportionment, one-partyism, and the complex structure of Jim Crow—remained in place. Yet, Key argued, there were growing doubts about the future course of southern politics. The New Deal had sharpened class lines in the region's politics; the depression had dealt a severe blow to the traditional system of plantation agriculture, swelling the stream of black migrants north; and the war had greatly stimulated and diversified the southern economy. Even more important, in the short run, were the emergence of civil rights as an issue in national politics, the identification of the Democratic Party with that issue, and the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948. While Key stressed the importance of the presence of blacks in the South on the development of southern politics, he argued that certain socioeconomic trends would "probably … further free [the region] from the effects of the Negro in its politics." Key predicted the formation of a coalition between southern blacks and white southern liberals that would lead to the gradual assimilation of blacks into political life and the eventual triumph over southern conservatism. According to Key and other contemporary chroniclers, the forces of racial reaction were on the defensive. The Dixiecrat movement had failed to raise the race issue in a "compelling manner," and this failure signified the end of racism as a potent regional political weapon.[4] "Unpleasant as all this was," noted Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, in the aftermath of the 1948 election, "the Dixiecrats inadvertently performed a great service for the South by demonstrating that the race issue is no longer a certain ticket to public office for any demagogue who cares to use it."[5]

Later historians of southern politics appropriately identified the important national political implications of the Dixiecrat bolt. The Dixiecrat defection marked the exit of the South from the New Deal coalition and the reorientation of the national party toward its more liberal wing. By breaking with the Democratic Party, the Dixiecrat movement demonstrated to conservative southerners that allegiance to one party was neither necessary nor beneficial and thus served as the crossover point for many southern voters in their move from the Democratic to the Republican column. The election of 1948, therefore, marked the beginning, however tentative, of the two-party South and the region's political transition from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold, a process not completed until 1968.[6] While these later syntheses are invaluable in identifying a singular moment in a major political transition, they nevertheless relegate the Dixiecrats to a page or two. They correctly identify an important historic shift in conservative southern political loyalty, yet they talk about southern political life as if it existed in a vacuum, ignoring completely the very difficult, start-and-stop nature of the process of political change. It is tempting to read back into history, to recognize the South's transition from a majority Democratic to a majority Republican region, to note Strom Thurmond's high-profile party switch in 1964, and to draw a straight line back to the Dixiecrats. But from the vantage point of the 1940s, we see only uncertainty and confusion. Only by immersing ourselves in the tumultuous events of the New Deal and postwar era can we begin to understand the meaning of the revolt for the people who staged it.

Historian Numan Bartley, in his seminal work on the rise of massive resistance organizations following the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education and in his recent major synthesis of the history of the South since World War II, draws important ideological connections between the Dixiecrats and anti-civil rights organizations in the 1950s. He further emphasizes the failure of the Dixiecrats to commit the South to political independence, thus underlining the persistence of New Deal political divisions in the region.[7] While I do not necessarily dispute Bartley's conclusions, his treatment of the Dixiecrats, situated as they are within large, sweeping narratives, begins in 1948, thus highlighting the "flash-in-the-pan" quality of a political movement whose roots ran deeper and whose impact was more lasting.[8]

The Dixiecrats were a reactionary protest organization comprised of economically conservative, segregationist southern Democrats who sought to reclaim their former prestige and ideological prominence in a party that had moved away from them. As political scientist Alexander Heard stated in his 1952 study of the political South, the Dixiecrats' strength was confined to a sector of the region.[9] The Dixiecrat movement was primarily a revolt of the Black Belt, those counties that contained the region's rich agricultural lands and large-scale plantation agriculture, the heart of the antebellum plantation South and home to the opponents of populism. The Black Belt also included those counties in which blacks outnumbered whites. Not surprisingly, maintenance of white supremacy was the area's primary political concern.[10] Following the defeat of the populists, the Black Belt factions within state governments succeeded in disfranchising black voters, diluting the potency of political dissent from poor whites, and enforcing the region's attachment to the Democratic Party. Two-party competition was anathema to Black Belt whites; it would have meant an appeal to black voters and possibly, as some feared, black rule. The ability of whites in the Black Belt to enforce regional conformity on the race issue in national politics became the South's best protection against federal interference in racial matters.

The maintenance of white supremacy and the threat of federal civil rights legislation to destroy that system was central to the formation and program of the States' Rights Democrats. The southern protest, however, was also a response to mounting agitation for racial and economic democracy at the local level. The Dixiecrats arose from and operated within a rapidly changing socioeconomic milieu stimulated by New Deal legislation and transformations brought on by World War II. Scholars recently have begun to devote more attention to the "generation before the Civil Rights Movement," those white and black southerners who in the 1930s and 1940s, energized by the promise of New Deal liberalism, created new organizations and political alliances to promote social and economic change in the South.[11] But just as economic, social, and political change in the years before Brown came too slowly for these groups, it came too quickly for others. For Black Belt elites, maintenance of the racial hierarchy and their own economic privilege—in particular, access to and control over natural resources and domination of a captive, low-wage labor force—were intimately intertwined. For decades following the Civil War, the southern economy had existed in isolation, cut off from the national economic mainstream, free from threats to low local wages and labor discipline.[12] New Deal programs initiated transformations that challenged the economic hegemony and control of the planter and industrial elites. Eager to feed from the rich trough of federal agricultural programs, planters were unwittingly complicit in the breakdown of the plantation system. They often refused to distribute crop reduction payments to sharecroppers and share tenants, thus effectively dislodging them from the plantation system and turning them, to borrow historian Gavin Wright's phrase, "into footloose wage laborers."[13] The war, in turn, created new economic opportunities for these workers no longer tied to the land. Labor shortages in agriculture during the war and into the late 1940s were acute. In addition, war also stirred a new race consciousness among southern blacks that frightened many southern whites.[14]

Agricultural elites were not the only ones disturbed by economic developments of the period. The New Deal's social welfare policies, wages and hours legislation, and protection for labor unions facilitated an alliance of white Black Belt and industrial leaders who shared a common conservative viewpoint.[15] In addition to planters, the Dixiecrats attracted, according to one contemporary source, the "upper crust of mill owners, oil men, … bankers [and] lawyers … who might have felt more comfortable voting Republican."[16] Thomas Sancton, writing for the Nation, noted that "in general the [Dixiecrats] are supported by all the investing and managing communities, from the Southern industrial metropolis to Old Man Johnson's 'furnish' store at the unnamed crossroads."[17] Men like Mississippi Delta planter Walter Sillers, Birmingham corporation lawyer Frank Dixon, Charlotte textile magazine publisher David C. Clark, and Louisiana oil and phosphate tycoon Leander Perez joined hands in common cause in an attempt to block what they termed federal interference into the rights of the states and of property owners.

"Local control"—racial and economic—became the catch phrase of the conservative elite. The Dixiecrats reserved their strongest criticism for the proposed permanent FEPC, which would outlaw discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. To them, the FEPC violated every concept of the right of employers under the Constitution because it would remove from them decisions regarding hiring and firing and, instead, would dispatch a veritable army of federal agents throughout the South to ensure that blacks were employed in every enterprise. Out on the stump, Dixiecrat supporters regularly distorted the goals of the FEPC, equating fair hiring practices with racial quotas.[18]

In denouncing the FEPC and other civil rights measures, the States' Rights Democrats had begun to articulate a critique of the expanding liberal state increasingly responsive to interest groups such as organized labor and African Americans. Their condemnation of New Deal liberalism gained power when framed in the new and powerful language of Cold War anticommunism. States' Rights leaders warned of the possibility of a "remote, distant, mysterious" government "beyond the comprehension of the people themselves."[19] Presidential candidate Thurmond warned of a "federal police state, directed from Washington, [that] would force life on each hamlet in America to conform to a Washington patter." "American" principles were the right to "local self-government"; failure to fight for states' rights would endanger "the most precious of all human rights—the right to control and govern ourselves at home, the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."[20] Conflict arose when the institution that had protected those principles—the national Democratic Party—began to threaten them instead. Thurmond and the Dixiecrats represented a reaction to the modern welfare state that over time would reach a broader audience frightened by school desegregation decisions, fair housing laws, and race riots and eventually give rise to the backlash led by George Wallace and to the growth of the Republican Party in the South.

The Dixiecrats' failure in 1948 was in part the result of crippling ironies and internal contradictions that illustrated the difficulties of fomenting political change in a one-party region. The organization encouraged voters to question their traditional political allegiance to the national Democratic Party, yet the Dixiecrats capitalized on and manipulated party regularity, succeeding only in those states where Thurmond and Wright were listed as the regular party nominees. Leaders differed over the organization's goals. Some, like Thurmond, claimed the Dixiecrats were not a third party, insisted they had never left the Democratic Party, and hoped to use the display of Dixiecrat strength as a bargaining chip in determining the future direction of the national party. Others wanted to use the Dixiecrat machinery to create a new third party. Voters who might have supported a new party were understandably wary of the Dixiecrats' confusion and ambivalence. Ideological rifts plagued the party, with some members more comfortable than others with the rough vernacular of white supremacy. Many States' Rights supporters shared Alabama Dixiecrat Marion Rushton's desire for a well rounded and complex conservative agenda that went beyond, although did not abandon, inflammatory race baiting. "The time is gone," Rushton confided to a fellow Dixiecrat, "when we Southerners can quit thinking and simply express ourselves by shouting 'nigger' and singing 'Dixie.'"[21] In addition to these problems, the Dixiecrats suffered from a lack of funding, hasty organization, and what one newspaper called a "poverty of leadership."[22] Indeed, the South Carolina governor abruptly distanced himself from the movement shortly after the polls had closed, abandoning it to its less politically respectable members. A dearth of recognizable leaders possessing regional influence and credibility would remain a vexing obstacle throughout the duration of the States' Rights campaign.

The Dixiecrats failed to capture more states because the New Deal and the war had altered the southern political landscape in new and important ways. White southerners as a whole remained overwhelmingly united in their defense of white supremacy; however, their willingness to remain wedded to the conservative economic agenda of the Black Belt elite had weakened. Workers encouraged by New Deal labor legislation and a generation of white men who served overseas began to see the South and politics in a slightly less parochial light and to view the federal government's role in the economic life of the region in less defensive ways. Campaign rhetoric attempting to arouse the white citizenry and to explain the political crisis exposed Dixiecrats' understanding of political relations as organic. They conceived of political relations in familial ways and privileged patriarchal dominance and control above all. Such a message failed to resonate fully in a region undergoing a profound transformation and in which rival groups had come to see themselves as potential political actors.

The Dixiecrats' significance lay not in their electoral efforts, which, as others have pointed out, were a failure. Although the organization itself was far from unified and, in fact, began to unravel almost at the moment of inception, the movement nevertheless provided an impulse and a precedent. It inaugurated a highly experimental era in which conservative white southerners used the movement's organizational and ideological framework to experiment with new political institutions and new alliances in their desperate attempt to stymie racial progress and preserve power. Despite the 1948 failure, the political repercussions of resistance were significant. The Dixiecrat party broke the Black Belt's historic allegiance to the national Democratic Party. Although some Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic fold, others remained uncomfortable with the party's position on civil rights and chose to be political independents, at least in national electoral contests, in the 1950s. Dixiecrat faithful contributed the early leadership of many local and state citizen councils and served as a stepping stone to the Republican Party.

The Dixiecrats likewise affected state political contests throughout the South. The Dixiecrat campaign legitimized on a fairly grand scale the use of red baiting in combination with race baiting, a technique that was utilized with precision and effect in campaigns in Florida and North Carolina in 1950. Furthermore, historians often have pointed to the defeat of Dixiecrat presidential candidate Thurmond in the 1950 U.S. Senate Democratic primary in South Carolina and the defeat of Alabama Dixiecrats for control of their state party as proof of Dixiecrat weakness. But is that the true meaning of these races? Implicit in this assessment is the confirmation of Key's argument that race was no longer an effective campaign issue. However, these campaigns proved just the opposite; white voters rejected Dixiecrat independence because it did not assure effective protection against civil rights legislation, not because they were no longer aroused by the politics of race.[23] In the turbulent 1930s and 1940s, as agitation by black southerners at the grass roots, coupled with Supreme Court decisions and executive orders, threatened to erase or considerably alter the color line in the South, white southerners searched for ways to safeguard the gains of the New Deal and the economic promise of the war years while redrawing the line. The success of many New Deal and moderate legislators in presenting themselves as the most ardent defenders of white supremacy isolated the Dixiecrats and hastened their exit from the Democratic Party.

This book begins in the 1930s with an overview of the socioeconomic changes wrought by the New Deal and World War II and concludes in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Although a major goal of this work is to situate the Dixiecrats within the tumultuous ferment of the New Deal, wartime, and postwar South and to show how the increasingly self-conscious activities of the Black Belt/industrial elite were a direct response to grassroots challenges, those elite and the 1948 campaign are the book's central focus. Because this was a regional movement that operated differently in individual states, comprehensive coverage of grassroots activity is prohibitive. This study intersperses the political narrative and analysis of the national campaign with detailed coverage of the local activity in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama—the flashpoints of the Dixiecrat campaign. The reasons for choosing these particular states are several. First, South Carolina and Mississippi are the home states of the Dixiecrats' presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Governors Thurmond and Fielding L. Wright, and Alabama Dixiecrats were highly influential in directing the campaign and in charting the organization's postelection future. These states also provided the Dixiecrats with their strongest support. South Carolina and Mississippi also had the largest percentage of blacks of all southern states. The story then moves on to the Dixiecrats' postelection prospects, which were exceptionally dim. The organization dissolved rather rapidly during 1949-50, due in no small part to Strom Thurmond's abandonment of it and the success of southern Democrats in Congress to stymie all civil rights legislation, thus depriving the Dixiecrats of their key issue. Although the organization per se did not survive into the 1950s, a nascent southern political independence, a disgruntlement with the national Democratic Party, did; consequently, concern over the protection of states' rights and segregation were major foci in strong Dixiecrat states in 1950 and 1952.

Strom Thurmond, not surprisingly, emerges as a central figure in this political drama. A man of keen political instincts, Thurmond also arose as a peculiar embodiment of the anxiety many white southerners felt in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Thurmond's independent political nature and, of course, his eventual switch to the Republican Party mirrored and anticipated the region's political identity crisis and transformation—in presidential politics—during this period. Thurmond's lone-wolf, almost antiestablishment, political nature meshed well with his personal life. Throughout his political career, Thurmond benefited from his ability to combine political independence and personal virility with a states' rights agenda that had as its bedrock local control over domestic institutions. His career has served as a most interesting guide into the story of southern politics in the 1940s and 1950s.

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