Civil Rights Revisionism

National Review’s current cover story, by Kevin Williamson, claims to expose the “outright lie” that the two major parties “switched roles” on civil rights for African-Americans during the 1960s. It is in fact a pretty audacious piece of revisionist history that combines an over-simplified “revelation” of pre-1960s Democratic hostility towards or indifference to civil rights (which no one, to my knowledge, has ever denied) with a twisted take on what both parties were doing in 1964–all in the service of the strange, frantic conservative effort to project liberal charges of contemporary racism onto liberals themselves.

Jonathan Chait and (at Ten Miles Square) Jonathan Bernstein have already written extensive refutations of Williamson’s abuse of the historical record. Bernstein notes that Williamson’s generalizations about Democrats ignore the support for civil rights among non-southern Democrats that grew steadily from the New Deal (remember how much trouble Eleanor Roosevelt’s outspokenness on the subject caused her husband?) and Fair Deal (remember the 1948 Convention when a civil rights plank touched off the Dixiecrat movement that nearly derailed Harry Truman’s re-election?) on and eventually reached critical mass in the early 1960s. Chait provides this excellent summary of the “mainstream” view of the subject and Williamson’s unsuccesful revision:

The mainstream, and correct, history of the politics of civil rights is as follows. Southern white supremacy operated out of the Democratic Party beginning in the nineteenth century, but the party began attracting northern liberals, including African-Americans, into an ideologically cumbersome coalition. Over time the liberals prevailed, forcing the Democratic Party to support civil rights, and driving conservative (and especially southern) whites out, where they realigned with the Republican Party.

Williamson crafts a tale in which the Republican Party is and always has been the greatest friend the civil rights cause ever had. The Republican takeover of the white South had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights, the revisionist case proclaims, except insofar as white Southerners supported Republicans because they were more pro-civil rights.

It’s this last argument by Williamson that I most want to comment on. Prior to 1964, southern white Republicans were a hardy minority built on the Mountain Republicanism of regions that had opposed the Confederacy and middle-class business-oriented city-dwellers. While neither faction was loudly racist, nor were they champions of civil rights, either. Not all Democrats were virulently racist, but the virulent racists were all Democrats. As V.O. Key demonstrated in his classic study, Southern Politics, the most race-sensitive white southerners, centered in the Black Belt regions of the Deep South, stuck with the White Man’s Party even as other southerners defected to the GOP in 1920 (over Prohibition) and 1928 (over Prohibition and Al Smith’s Catholicism). In 1948, these same racists heavily defected to the Dixiecrats in a protest against the national Party’s growing commitment to civil rights. They mostly returned to the Democrats after that uprising, until 1964, when they voted almost universally for Barry Goldwater, purely and simply because Goldwater had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Four years later most of them voted for the race-centered candidacy of George Wallace, and four years after that just about every one of them voted for Richard Nixon. These were not people attracted to the GOP, when they were, because it was “pro-civil rights,” as Williamson asserts, or because they favored that party on any other issue. It was all about race, which is why, for example, the GOP percentage of the presidential vote veered insanely in Mississippi from 25% in 1960 to 87% in 1964 to 14% in 1968 to 78% in 1972.

Jimmy Carter (who was endorsed by Wallace and most other surviving Democratic ex-segregationists) got a lot of those voters back for the obvious reason of regional pride, and after that issues other than civil rights did matter in the region, though the racial polarization of the two parties was evident from the beginning in Mississippi and eventually spread elsewhere. But however you slice it, the idea that Barry Goldwater in 1964 was viewed by white southerners as anything other than the direct descendent of the Dixiecrats is just ridiculous. Sure, issues other than civil rights buttressed GOP strength in the region later on, but it would not have happened if the GOP had not also rapidly become the party most hostile towards or indifferent to civil rights. It’s also worth mentioning that among the Republicans who were notably interested in civil rights in and after 1964, none of them were southerners.

And that leads me to the most preposterous thing about Williamson’s essay: he’s writing as a movement conservative for the flagship publication of movement conservatism. To the extent that Republicans before, during or after the 1960s fit the pro-civil rights profile he’s trying to affix on the party as a whole, they were overwhelmingly not movement conservatives. Most of them, in fact, were the very “liberals” and “moderates” and “RINOs” movement conservatives have been trying to run out of the GOP, with great success, for decades.

It’s likely, of course, that Williamson’s definition of “civil rights” differs not only from mine but from that shared by most people who aren’t “movement conservatives.” This is a man, after all, who think’s it is obvious that LBJ and other Democrats were pursuing a consciously racist strategy of “enslaving” African-Americans by promoting the social programs associated with the Great Society. He may well think “liberating” black folks from the morally corrupting influence of Medicaid or food stamps or the ignominy of affirmative action is the true “civil rights agenda.” In that sense, his revisionist effort will succeed, because it makes sense to the people who are his audience, and who don’t want to acknowedge that while most Republicans today may not be bigots, most bigots are certainly voting Republican, just as they voted Democratic prior to World War II. In that regard, there is zero question the two parties have “switched roles” with a vengence.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.