Thursday, July 3, 2014

Civil Rights, LBJ and the Truth About Democrats, Republicans and Racism

Over the last few days a number of conservatives have been doing an awful lot of chest-thumping over their part in passing the Civil Rights Act, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on July 2nd. To hear them tell it, it was Republicans who were responsible for the bill's passage in Congress. Racist Democrats tried to filibuster and kill it.

You hear this mantra quite often from conservatives. Republicans were the party that ended slavery; Democrats resisted them. Republicans fought to end segregation; Democrats supported the Ku Klux Klan. They even managed to dig up a clip where Lyndon Johnson is heard saying the "N" word, proof positive that Democrats were the party of racism.

Of course what many of these people are sadly missing are contextual and historical perspective. When they say that racist Democrats wanted to kill the bill and Republicans supported it, they are only telling part of the story. In order to get at the truth, it is important to go back and look at the makeup of both parties in the 1960s.

Harry Enten wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian which explains this very "complicated picture."

Yes, it is true that, if you look simply at the across the board voting, a greater percentage of Republicans supported the bill than Democrats. But when one breaks down the vote geographically, the results are quite startling.

First let's start with the raw numbers. In 1964, Democrats held 244 seats in the House and 67 seats in the Senate, by all accounts an extraordinary majority. Conversely, Republicans held just 171 seats in the House and only 33 seats in the Senate. But what is not generally known or discussed much is that in the South, Democrats controlled 91 of the 102 total House seats and 21 of the 22 total Senate seats, an even greater majority percentage.

In those states not in the South, Democrats voted 95 percent in favor of the bill in the House and 98 percent in favor in the Senate, compared with 9 percent and 5 percent respectively among Southern Democrats. The Republican breakdown was even worse. While roughly 85 percent of non-southern House and Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bill, not one Republican in the South joined them. All 12 voted no.

The reason for the disparity between Republican and Democratic support for the Civil Rights Act is owed directly to the fact that Democrats held far more House and Senate seats in the South than Republicans. Had the two parties been similar in strength, the percentages would've been considerably closer; it's entirely possible that they might even have been reversed.

It was the racism that existed in the South that proved to be the primary culprit.  Party affiliation seems to have been superfluous. What happens next, however, is crucial to get a full understanding of the issue before us.

Almost immediately after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and later the Voting Rights Act, many southern Democrats - commonly referred to as Dixiecrats - began bolting the party to join the GOP. They were led by the likes of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace and, later in the '70s, Jesse Helms. Conservative arguments that Robert Byrd stayed with the Democratic Party are amusing at best. Byrd was the only "northern" Democrat to vote against the Civil Rights Act and, as The Daily Kos adroitly observed, calling West Virginia a northern state is "a stretch." At any rate, Byrd later changed his views and became a supporter of civil rights, while Thurmond and Helms remained fervent  segregationists until their deaths.

In the years since the passage of both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the South has become increasingly Republican, while the North has become increasingly Democratic. Richard Nixon capitalized on the fears of many segregationists by employing the Southern Strategy. It helped propel him to victory in the 1968 presidential election. In fact, Barry Goldwater, the '64 Republican nominee for president, managed to win five southern states that had, heretofore, always voted Democrat. 

A comparison between the 1964 and current Congress reveals the depths of the transformation that has taken place in both parties. Below are maps depicting the composition of both Houses in the 88th Congress. Right below them are maps depicting the composition of those very same Houses in the current Congress. Read it and weep.

Senate, 88th Congress:


 House of Representatives, 88th Congress:

Senate, current Congress:

House of Representatives, current Congress:

Over the last fifty years the GOP has virtually taken over the South. It is now the majority party in that region of the country. Furthermore, Republicans who would've supported the Civil Rights Act are now completely gone from the party, purged by a radical element that is obsessed with purifying its ranks.

Yes, it is true that once upon a time the Republican Party was a progressive, freedom-loving party. Men like Abraham Lincoln defined it and men like Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower carried on that grand old tradition. It is also true that Great Britain was once a great sea-faring nation. But, as they say in the Navy, that ship sailed a long, long time ago.


Prof. Walter Jameson said...


And what does it all tell us? It tells us, very simply, that political labels are meaningless. If I have three cups of the colors red, white and blue sitting on a table, and into the red cup I pour some C&C cola, will that C&C cola change into, say, Pepsi if I take the contents of the red cup and pour it into the blue? No, of course not; it's still C&C cola. We evaluate not by labels, but what exists in the hearts of men.

As far as the South is concerned, what can one say? Old habits and attitudes, particularly those of the most odious kind, take a long time to die off. I mean, even after the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, we had about 100 years of Jim Crow in the South. Even today, some schools in that region teach about the "War of Northern Aggression," and not The U.S. Civil War.

That's how powerful the evil and most peculiar of all institutions was ... and is. It shaped an entire region's culture and ethos. And although it may no longer exist upon this land, it still very much exists in some hearts and minds of the people in the South, fueled by ignorance and a false sense of superiority.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

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