The Republican Party’s Race Problem and Strom Thurmond’s Legacy

A new book argues that Strom Thurmond left the party with a poisonous legacy on race. By Jordan Michael Smith.

Just 2 percent of delegates were African-Americans at the Republican National Convention. At the DNC, blacks comprised more than a quarter of the delegate count. Many conservatives remain mystified by their inability gain support among African-Americans. After all, the GOP is the party of civil rights.

At least that was the contention earlier this year of Kevin Williamson, an editor at flagship conservative magazine National Review. In a May cover story, Williamson contended that Democrats, not Republicans, have always been the party of civil rights. “[T]he Democrats have been allowed to rhetorically bury their Bull Connors, their longstanding affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, and their pitiless opposition to practically every major piece of civil-rights legislation for a century,” Williamson wrote.

The essay was widely condemned as ahistorical and simply bizarre. Williamson disputed the debate-ending fact that Southern Democrats transferred to the Republican Party primarily because it was retrograde on racial issues. More honest conservatives, among them National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, have written candidly of conservatives’ failure to grapple with the history. But Williamson’s is still the dominant view on the right wing.

Anyone doubting the myths conservatives cling to must consult Strom Thurmond’s America, a well-researched new book by Joseph Crespino, a historian at Emory University. The longtime South Carolina senator was representative of the trajectory so many Southern Democrats embarked on in the 1960s. As the Democrats abandoned their longtime hostility to African-Americans’ civil rights in the 1940s, Thurmond and his compatriots moved to the Republican Party. Thurmond “quit the Democratic Party at the high-water mark of the civil-rights revolution, helped Barry Goldwater win five Deep South states in 1964, and led a historic shift of white Southerners into the GOP,” Crespino writes.

Thurmond fled the Democrats when President Harry Truman urged legislators to implement the sweeping document issued by his Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights. Among other measures, the report called for ending economic discrimination, desegregating all public facilities, establishing regional offices of the Civil Rights Section of a strengthened Justice Department, passing an anti-lynching law, and creating permanent civil-rights commissions in every state to monitor civil rights.

In response, Thurmond created the States’ Rights Democrats, more commonly known as the Dixiecrats Party. “[T]here’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the n***r race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” he said as in his first speech as the party’s presumptive president. It was the first toss in a game that would see virtually the entire South migrated to the GOP.

Strom Thurmond’s America fairly observers that racism was not the only reason

Thurmond and the South defected from the Democrats. Many soon-to-be conservatives (most still called themselves liberals) were motivated by “Cold War anticommunism, anti-labor politics, conservative religious beliefs and opposition to liberal church groups, criticism of judicial activism, and hyper-militarism.” One might add growing concerns about crime and maintaining law and order. All of these issues were intertwined with race in many Southerners’ minds, led by Strom Thurmond.

It was not until the mid-1960s that the South turned from blue to red. In 1964 and ’65, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson introduced and signed the strongest civil-rights bills yet enacted by Congress. The 1964 Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, voted against the laws and took up the mantle of “states’ rights.” Again the standard-bearer was Thurmond, who campaigned hard for the conservative icon. Republicans won South Carolina and four other Southern states, the best showing in the South for the party since reconstruction.

Goldwater lost badly, but Richard Nixon pioneered the ‘Southern strategy,’ which Crespino persuasively argues is misnamed because it was designed to appeal to the prejudices of both Southerners and a newly conservative Sun Belt. The plan was to attract Americans to the GOP by opposing busing and desegregating schools, advocating states’ rights and prioritizing law and order. Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who ensured George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential race’s success considerably by appealing to racism, explained that overtly appealing to racism backfired by the mid-1960s, “[s]o you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.” The strategy worked brilliantly. Today Democrats cannot hope to compete in the South, which is now as solidly Republican as it was once Democratic.

All of this might be of interest only to historians if Strom Thurmond’s Republican Party had nothing in common with today’s. But it does. When Newt Gingrich calls Obama a “food-stamp president,” he is maintaining his party’s post-1960s appeals to racism. When the late conservative icon Andrew Briebart manipulated a speech by African-American leader Shirley Sherrod to make her seem racist, he was appealing to the myths of whites’ victimization at the hands of blacks. Vastly more (PDF) bigoted beliefs belong to Tea Party members than to other political subgroups, among them the astonishing 65% (PDF) of Tea Partiers who believe that African-Americans are not hard-working.

Many leading conservative figures and intellectuals not only solicit this racism; they bond it. Rush Limbaugh is the most prominent racist in all of America with his ranting against imaginary black gang-beatings of whites spurred by Obama. Right-wingers believe racism exists—but it always is directed against whites. National Review (you’ve noticed the magazine’s recurrence here) columnist Victor Davis Hanson defends whites against “race-baiting.” NR star Jonah Goldberg writes, “I love” accusations of racism against whites because they’re absurd—“conservatives laugh at this stuff”—as if charges of conservative racism are always ridiculous.

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These delusions have real-world consequences. Though the vast majority of opposition to Obama is not remotely race-related, some of it (PDF) surely is, and conservatives not only ignore but outright appeal to it. Draconian prison sentences and drug laws, endemic police brutality, high rates of poverty—urgent social issues primarily affecting minorities are marginalized in significant part because Republicans refuse to believe they exist, or when they do, they are the fault of African-Americans themselves, who are alleged to mire in victimology.

Conservatives' blindness to offenses against people of color has its roots in historical Republican offenses against people of color. To concede that William F. Buckley and Jerry Falwell were segregationists is to acknowledge that modern conservatism was built and sustained in large part on bigotry. To grant that the Republican majority was founded on bigotry against African-Americans is to grant that “Reagan’s victory [w]as a vindication of the states’ rights politics that had defined Thurmond’s career,” as Crespino puts it (Reagan notoriously used the phrase in Mississippi during his 1980 campaign, among other transgressions). Republicans’ post-1950s supremacy in partisan racism must never be confronted. The GOP has improved significantly on matters of race, certainly. When then-Senator Trent Lott said in 2002 that “all of these problems” would have been avoided had Thurmond gotten his way, Republicans pushed him out as Senate leader. The popularity of Condi Rice and Herman Cain show that there is at least some room in the party for minorities. Still, these are instances of minor progress within a sad overall record on race. If it is not Strom Thurmond’s party, he wouldn’t be entirely divorced from it, either. Perhaps if conservatives admitted that, Republicans will have a few more minority delegates at their next convention.