The Dixicrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South:1932-1968

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Contents

The Dixiecrat Revolt

Kari Fredrickson. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South: 1932-1968. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp.311. ISBN:0807849103

Summary

1948 was a watershed year for civil rights. The National Democratic Party took significant strides towards adopting a platform that included demands for legislation to protect African American’s from discrimination at the worksite and polls. In reaction to the pro-Civil Rights platform and the re-nomination of President Truman, a coalition of Southern Democrats walked out to form their own States’ Rights Party. Despite high hopes and heated rhetoric, the Southern Party, nicknamed Dixiecrats, proved toothless and Truman went on to win the 1948 election with the support of most Southerners.

Kari Fredrickson’s The Dixiecrat Revolt and the end of the Solid South:1932-1968 recounts the events that led up to the splintering of the Democratic Party. Since Reconstruction, the South had firmly aligned itself with the Democratic Party. By the 1930s, Southerners held key leadership positions and exerted significant influence over the Party. Southern conservatives originally supported Roosevelt’s New Deal programs because “they could control them and because they personally benefited from them.”(17) As the New Deal progressed, Southerners began to reevaluate their stance. The Federal relief programs helped break down the traditional Southern planter economy. African American farm workers began to leave the farm and work for themselves. Despite large majorities of African Americans turning out to vote for Roosevelt in 1936, he remained ambivalent towards civil rights. Nonetheless, Fredrickson concludes that “FDR and his New Deal programs raised blacks’ expectations, prompting then to participate in greater numbers in civil rights organizations.”(21)

World War II quickened the march towards Civil Rights. Huge migrations left rural areas with a severe labor shortage. African Americans who fought in the War demanded more rights at home and were less willing to put up with second-rate citizenship. The war years saw the NAACP’s membership increase tenfold. Conservative Southerns reacted with horror to these developments. Making matters worse, the Federal Government took steps towards racial equality. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941 forbidding discrimination in defense industries and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). According to Fredrickson, the most egregious event was the 1944 Supreme Court Case Smith v. Allwright. In its ruling, the Court stated that “the Texas white primary law violated the Fifteenth Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional.”(39) Politicians in the Deep South seethed at this affront to their right to frame their own election laws.

Southerns reacted to Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s ascension to the presidency with ambivalence. His stance on civil rights was unknown but many hoped that he would continue Roosevelt’s policy of pandering to the Southern wing. Events quickly proved them wrong. By 1947, Truman was declaring that the nation “can no longer afford the luxury of a leisurely attack upon prejudice and discrimination.”(52) Fredrickson argues that there were two primary motives for Truman’s willingness to challenge to Southern wing of his party. First was the wave of violence that had broken out since the Smith ruling. The number of lynchings dramatically rose and it appeared that the States were powerless to stop them. Truman was particularly upset by the fact that much of the violence was aimed at black veterans. If the Southern States were not willing to step in and act, Truman declared that the “national government must show the way.”(65)

Truman’s other motivation for actively supporting Civil Rights was political. Republicans had scored huge victories in the 1946 elections in large part to support from African Americans. Facing the 1948 election, Truman calculated that the South would vote Democrat no matter what he did he was therefore free to court the black vote. Southerners were determined not to be cast aside and set out to ensure Truman did was not re-nominated. Tensions ran high at the 1948 Democratic Convention. Many of the Southern State delegations were challenged as being illegitimate because the State Primaries had either barred African Americans or had forced candidates to pledge that they would not support Truman. Though none of the seated delegations were removed, the atmosphere was contentious before the Convention even began. The 1948 convention made it clear that the Southern States were not as united as they had hoped. After a failed attempt to convince General Eisenhower to challenge Truman, the Southerners were unable to agree on another candidate and Truman easily won the nomination. Rallying behind a powerful pro-civil rights speech delivered by Hubert Humphrey, the party overwhelmingly supported a civil rights platform. Half of the Alabama delegation and the entire Mississippi Delegation walked out and “the remaining southerners refused to accept the Truman nomination.”(131) Upset Southerners quickly organized a convention of their own in Birmingham, Alabama beginning on July 17. Although the gathered delegates had not wanted to leave the Democratic Party, they argued that the extremist northern liberals had seized control of the Party. They untied behind States-Rights leaders South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for President and Mississippi’s Governor Fielding Wright.

Though the States’ Rights Democrats, as they called themselves, knew a victory was unlikely, it was hoped that without the Southern Electoral Votes, Truman could not win. Despite winning some preliminary struggles, such as forcing Truman to run as a write-in candidate in some areas, the State’s Rights Democrats captured only four states. Fredrickson argues that it was in large part due to the South’s allegiance to the Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats also “suffered from inadequate funding, faulty organization, critical strategic inconsistencies, and ill-defined long-range goals.”(151) Their movement was not a failure though and it did not end in 1948. The Democratic Party’s hold on the South was broken. Many former Dixiecrats, such as Thurmond, returned to the Democratic Party and held prominent political positions for years. 1952 saw many former Dixiecrats supporting Eisenhower and marked the decline of the Southern Democratic Party. The complete demise of the one-party South did not take place until the 1960s.

Commentary

David Houpt, Fall 2008

The Dixiecrat Revolt is a great book for those interested in the political history of the Democratic Party. Frederickson walks the reader through the different twists and turns of the States’ Rights movement. The title is slightly misleading however. Anyone looking for a study of politics after 1952 will be disappointed. The book's focal point is the Democratic Convention and the general election of 1948. There is some good background but only a few pages dedicated to the 60'ss. It is still a worthwhile read and adding a segment on the 60's would have resulted in a tomb that was daunting in length.

Some of the most interesting segments of the book come when Fredrickson analyzes the motivation for why Democrats shifted their stance on civil rights. Truman, though not blind to the racial atrocities, chose to take a strong stance on the plight of African Americans because it was politically beneficial. It would have been interesting to learn more about this decision and how Truman’s advisers were able to make these decisions. Did they use early polling methods, or was it a gut decision based on the election of 1946? Political strategists in the modern era spend millions of dollars devising a winning election strategy and it would have been interesting to learn how Truman was so successful.

The book did become a little convoluted when Fredrickson was bouncing back and forth between different State movements and the National campaign. It is difficult to keep track of everything that was taking place in each state and too often the events just blur together. The book could be improved by more of a discussion on the reaction to the States’ Rights Party. If the States’ Rights Party only ended up winning four states, there must have been a large number of voters who rejected the Party. Were they vocal? Furthermore, Fredrickson hardly mentions how the Northern Democrats viewed the movement, or if there were any States (possibly in the West) that were somewhat sympathetic with the cause.

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