In anticipation of the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s civil and voting rights acts in 1964, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond defected to the Republican Party. He was soon followed by the other Southern senators and the formerly Democratic “Solid South” quickly became solidly Republican.
But this change hardly altered the country’s basic legislative landscape. It merely made honest men of Southern Democrats who had been voting with the Republicans all along anyway on issues involving labor, business regulation and taxes. In return the conservative Republicans would either vote with the Southerners on segregation bills or absent themselves when these came to a vote. The independent press dubbed this shameless collusion the “Unholy Alliance.”
In those days Thurmond was the acknowledged leader of the Senate’s Southern Democrats. He had also run as the Dixiecrat presidential nominee against President Harry Truman in 1948. I was a personal witness to some of those goings on since the Dixiecrat nominating convention was held in the Birmingham City Auditorium near my home. Although as a teenager I neither understood nor cared much about politics, I enjoyed the spectacle and the hoopla.
Although the Dixiecrats entertained no thoughts of winning the presidency, they hoped to drain off enough electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives where they hoped to have enough votes to force some concessions from the regular Democrats. But they failed totally in the General Election with only 39 electoral votes to Truman’s 303. But the Dixiecrats crowed that although defeated, they still stood up for their principles, a sort of carryover from the “lost cause” mystique of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. But let’s take a closer look at Senator Thurmond’s “principles.”
If Old Strom truly had principles against racial mixing, they didn’t extend to all rooms of his house. After his death there surfaced a middle-aged mixed-race lady, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, whom Thurmond privately acknowledged fathering. And, to his everlasting credit, he financed her education. The daughter was conceived in 1948 when Thurmond was a 22-year-old high school teacher and coach and the mother was a 15-year-old maid in his father’s home. But Strom Thurmond, Thomas Jefferson, et. al., weren’t the only Southern gentlemen to practice “selective” segregation. Miscegenation was a practice seldom openly discussed but widely acknowledged and winked at in the South. On the other hand, any sexual overtures by a black male toward a white female in those times would have swiftly resulted in his dangling from a limb of the nearest magnolia tree.
Getting back to my original subject, what has actually changed in America’s political configuration as a result of the 1964 realignment has been a radicalization and extreme partisanship in both parties. The secret of America’s success for more than two centuries has been political moderation. But today the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” have become mere synonyms for “liberal” and “conservative.” The resulting congressional gridlock has often made it practically impossible to get anything done legislatively. The upcoming November elections offer a wonderful opportunity to begin restoring some sanity to our body politic. But we must get out and vote!
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.