Over the years there has been a concerted effort, on behalf of many, to rewrite political history, especially when it comes to the Democrat Party. These rewrites, half-truths or urban legends misrepresent historical fact; and unfortunately have led astray countless numbers of people through politically charged falsehoods. One such legend, which seeks to rewrite history, is that of the Dixiecrats. As the legend goes, those Dixiecrats who broke from the Democrat party in 1948 all joined the Republican Party (see the articles by Roland Martin and Clarence Page).
According to Page’s reconstruction of history, Goldwater votes against the 1964 Civil rights act; and it takes moderate Republicans, led by Everett Dirksen, to ensure that the act becomes law over the obstruction of the Southern segregationists. What Page fails to mention, is that Goldwater and other conservatives supported the 1957 and 1960 Civil rights acts. He then goes on to say, “…many of those same conservative southern Democrats turned Republican. They helped form the core of the historic “Southern strategy,” using racial resentments and states’ rights arguments to rebuild the conservative movement after Goldwater’s resounding defeat.” Unfortunately for Page, the historical record and pure logic don’t bear out this assumption.
During the Philadelphia nominating convention of the Democrat Party in 1948, a number of disgruntled southern segregationist Democrats stormed out in protest. They were upset about planks in the new platform that supported Civil Rights.
They left to form a new Party called the State’s Rights Democratic Party also known as the Dixiecrats. Segregationists like George Wallace and other loyalists, although upset, did not bolt from the party; but instead supported another candidate against Harry Truman. According to Kari Frederickson, the goal for the Dixiecrats “was to win the 127 electoral-college votes of the southern states, which would prevent either Republican Party nominee Thomas Dewy or Democrat Harry Truman from winning the 266 electoral votes necessary for election. Under this scenario, the contest would be decided by the House of Representatives, where southern states held 11 of the 48 votes, as each state would get only one vote if no candidate received a majority of electors’ ballots. In a House election, Dixiecrats believed that southern Democrats would be able to deadlock the election until one of the parties had agreed to drop its civil rights plank.”
Notably, this stated aim is apparent in the third plank of the Dixiecrat’s platform which states, “We stand for social and economic justice, which, we believe can be guaranteed to all citizens only by a strict adherence to our Constitution and the avoidance of any invasion or destruction of the constitutional rights of the states and individuals. We oppose the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions.”
What is, even more, telling, and speaks directly to the incredulous nature of this urban legend, is the fact that the Dixiecrats rejected the Civil rights platforms of not one, but both parties. Republicans had always supported civil rights since their inception (see GOP party platform here). What was new is that the Democrats, led by Harry Truman, were publicly taking a stand for Civil rights (see Democrat Party Platform here). The ‘totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government”, according to the Dixiecrats, was the federal government’s enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. With both parties, now, standing for Civil rights the segregationist had no party to go too. Thus, they started their own with the idea of causing a stalemate, which they hoped to break, once both parties relinquished their pro-civil rights planks.
Which way did they go?
The strategy of the State’s Rights Democratic Party failed. Truman was elected and civil rights moved forward with support from both Republicans and Democrats. This begs an answer to the question: So where did the Dixiecrats go? Contrary to legend, it makes no sense for them to join with the Republican Party whose history is replete with civil rights achievements. The answer is, they returned to the Democrat party and rejoined others such as George Wallace, Orval Faubus, Lester Maddox, and Ross Barnett. Interestingly, of the 26 known Dixiecrats (5 governors and 21 senators) only three ever became Republicans: Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and Mills E. Godwind, Jr. The segregationists in the Senate, on the other hand, would return to their party and fight against the Civil Rights acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower proffered the first two Acts.
Eventually, politics in the South began to change. The stranglehold that white segregationist Democrats once held over the South began to crumble. The “old guard” gave way to a new generation of politicians. The Republican Party saw an opportunity to make in-roads into the southern states appealing to southern voters. However, this southern strategy was not an appeal to segregationists, but to the new political realities emerging in the south.
Conservatives vs. Segregationists
Despite this, and other overwhelming evidence to the contrary, these same “revisionists” would have you believe that conservatives and segregationists are synonymous. This could not be further from the truth. By definition, conservatives today are what were once called “classical liberals”, which Barry Goldwater clearly was. It should be noted here, that although in his latter years Goldwater sounded more like a Libertarian; “classical liberals” believe, among other things, in liberty to reach one’s fullest potential, own property, start a business, vote and worship without the assistance or interference of the Federal Government. [FJM has dubbed these the R.I.S.E. principles, which stands for Responsible government, Individual liberty and fidelity, Strong family values and Economic empowerment (See R.I.S.E principles)].
As a matter of historical record, conservatives (classical liberals) have always taken seriously the US Constitution’s limiting of the scope and reach of government. This includes the very nature and letter of the Bill of Rights, especially the tenth amendment.
For example, conservative ideology differs from the segregationists in that segregationist used the tenth amendment to nullify the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, as well as the Declaration of Independence. An often misrepresented fact is, that Dixiecrats, not Republicans, tried to exalt states rights over the rights guaranteed to African Americans challenging the merits of the 14th amendment section one, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This amendment granted former slaves full citizenship and equal protection under the law, which segregationist tried to deny Blacks through black codes, Jim Crow, lynching and/or a rigged jury.
Additionally, the 15th amendment gave African Americans the right to vote. It states in Section 1. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Segregationists denied this right through poll taxes and intimidation (the KKK).
The truth is, that “true” conservatives would (did) not agree with the segregationist interpretation of the Constitution, especially that of the tenth amendment. Conservatives, past and present, however, do believe in responsible or limited government; but certainly not at the expense of turning the Constitution on its head to do so. Conservatives hold that the Constitution limits the Federal government to the enumerated powers explicit in the document, and therefore the Fed has no power when it tries to move past its constitutional restraints. All other powers belong to the states and the people. Bottom line, a person advocating for state’s rights should be able to do so without being labeled a segregationist. For conservatives, “the rights of the people” include all races, creeds, ethnicities, and colors—all U.S. citizens.
While the notion that Dixiecrats all became Republicans is nothing more than another in a line of dubious urban legends; it’s clear that for generations its stories have been told (and retold) to manipulate and discourage Blacks from considering the Republican Party and, or more importantly, the tenets of conservative ideas. Unfortunately, the references made to State’s Rights commonly attributed to conservative ideology are still being widely used to link conservatives with segregationists. This, too, is nothing more than an urban legend. Sadly, these live on to smear and misrepresent not only our history but also the character and reputation of men and women of principle.
Dr. Wallace is the Publisher of Freedom's Journal Magazine. He has been in publishing for over 20 years and in ministry over 40 years. He holds a PhD in Biblical studies and is an ordained minister. He also serves as the President & Co-founder of Freedom's Journal Institute, the parent company of this magazine. He is married to Jennifer Wallace and they have two sons Eric and Greg.