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:
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.