Nixon’s southern strategy

I have heard Republicans claim that segregation was the creation of Democrats in the South.

It’s true. The Democratic Party was completely dominant in the former Confederate states almost until the end of the 20th century.

What’s not true, however, is any notion that today’s Republicans in the South are the inheritors of Republicans in the pre-civil rights era. That’s the implicit (explicit, even) point of southern Republicans who go to great lengths to note their party allegiance and how the GOP was the party of blacks and progressives (at least on matters of race) from Reconstruction until the presidencies of FDR and LBJ.

For it’s simply true that today’s Republican Party in the former Confederate states is the inheritor of the anti-civil rights Democratic Party of decades ago.

As a young acquaintance from Alabama once said to me with a serious tone: “If you’re white, you’re Republican.”

And it dates back to Strom Thurmond and his political ally, Richard Nixon. It was taken up by the likes of Jesse Helms and Richard Shelby … and so many others.

It’s the result, partly, of Richard Nixon’s ingenious “southern strategy,” which I once had a conservative correspondent claim he’d never heard of not to long ago.

The reason for the history 101 here is that I came across another great passage in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland today:

The president [Nixon] found succor in Dixie. The Fifth Circuit had ordered thirty-three Mississippi school districts integrated before the opening of the school year. The districts filed the court-mandated plans; HEW approved them. Then Nixon ordered HEW secretary Finch to send the judge a letter with language dictated by Mississippi senator John Stennis: the September deadline would bring “chaos, confusion, and catastrophic educational setback” for children “blacks and whites alike.” The judge moved back the deadline to December; when it would, perhaps, be moved back some more. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund took out a full-page ad in the New York Times: “On August 25, 1969, the United States Government broke its promise to the children of Mississippi. The promise was made in 1954. By the highest court in the land.” Roy Wilkins accused the administration of actively helping the South prolong segregation and said that if Nixon was serious about civil rights, he’d fire John Mitchell. HEW’s civil rights chief, Leon Panetta, a thirty-one-year-old former aide to Thomas Kuchel, did what he thought was his job: he piped up that Nixon was serious about civil rights, just as he’d said at his inauguration.

Panetta immediately got a call from Ehrlichman: “Cool it, Leon!”

Silly Leon. HEW general counsel Robert Mardian, a top operative in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, marveled, “Doesn’t he understand Nixon promised the Southern delegates he would stop enforcing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts?”

This isn’t to say that all southern Republicans are racists. They aren’t. Just as all northern liberals aren’t colorblind.  The point here is that history is history, and there’s no white-washing the fact that today’s southern Republicans are the descendants of a political backlash against civil rights and integration.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s