Urban Legends: The Southern Strategy

Urban Legends Southern Strategy

If one were to search the internet with the phrase “southern strategy” you would find that it has become common knowledge in the Black community as well as the main stream media that the GOP, starting with Richard Nixon, had a strategy to win southern states by appealing to the anti-civil rights sentiment of the southern whites. This strategy was used to win the affections of disaffected white racist with an appeal to “states rights.” One can find apologies from former RNC chairmen Ken Mehlman and an acknowledgement that there was a strategy that alienated Blacks by Michael Steele. As well accepted, as this version of the “Southern strategy” is I am not sure that it holds water when it is fully scrutinized.

In more recent articles I have talked about the Dixiecrat movement in 1948. The aim was to force both parties to reject their civil rights platforms. Unfortunately for the segregationist, but fortunately for the rest of us neither the GOP nor the democrats capitulated. Civil rights continued to move forward under Truman and Eisenhower. The vice president during the Eisenhower administration was Richard Nixon who helped push forward the civil rights legislation proffered by Eisenhower in 1957 and 1960.

In 1960 the Republican Party platform included a plank on civil rights with six items clearly demarcated: voting; public schools; employment; housing; public facilities and services; and legislative procedure.[1] The Republican Party as well as Presidential candidate Richard Nixon ran on a pro-civil rights agenda. There is no indication of the GOP deviating from its pro-civil rights agenda since the party’s conception. Some may argue that in 1968 civil rights is no longer demarcated in the GOP platform,[2] which would prove a turn away from Civil rights. Unfortunately, for those who hold this view the evidence is not there. The Civil rights Act is now law and so is the voting rights act. There is no need to detail what these laws now address. Republicans would focus on other issues as demarcated in their 1968 platform: crises of the cities; crime; youth; education; human development; Jobs; the poor; health etc. Within these categories they’d address discrimination but there was no longer a need to have a category specifically for civil rights.

The Democratic platform would mention many of the same issues with different rubrics and of course different ways of addressing society’s ills.[3] From here on out the major fights between the Democrats and Republicans would not be over civil rights but over the function of government in our society. Not that the role of government wasn’t always a point of departure for the political parties, it has been at the core of political debate since the writing of the constitution. However, there was no longer a question about whether there should be racial equality but what the government’s role should be in making it or helping it come to fruition and to address other issues facing the nation.

With this backdrop it is hard to imagine the GOP changing its focus from being pro-civil rights, which it had supported for almost a hundred years, to attract or even think it could attract segregationist to the party. What reason could there possibly be to jeopardize its brand? Segregationist’s were a dying political breed. The ill fated run of George Wallace as a candidate for president for the American Independence Party in 1968 ensured two things: 1) segregation was dying out never to wield political power on a national level; 2) States rights would return to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. George Wallace wanted to rescind the Civil rights act.[4] He felt it was a misuse of Federal powers, that states had the right to self-determination even if it meant discriminating against others. Wallace misunderstood the tenth amendment to the constitution. The tenth amendment did not nullify the 14th and 15th amendments.

Therefore the “Southern Strategy” could not possibly be an attempt to attract anti-civil rights people to the GOP or “States Rights” segregationist to the party of Lincoln. George Wallace would have garnered those votes and it would have been an about-face for the GOP. Pat Buchanan, co-architect of the Nixon strategy, says that “Richard Nixon kicked off his historic comeback in 1966 with a column on the South (by this writer) that declared we would build our Republican Party on a foundation of states rights, human rights, small government and a strong national defense, and leave it to the ‘party of Maddox, Mahoney and Wallace to squeeze the last ounces of political juice out of the rotting fruit of racial injustice.’”[5] Buchanan states that the 1968 campaign began with Nixon at 43%, Humphrey at 29% and Wallace at 22%.[6] Toward the end of the campaign Nixon and Humphrey were at 42% and Wallace was at 13%. Wallace had lost 9% of his support to Humphrey not to Nixon. In the end Nixon carried Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, North and South Carolina. Humphrey carried Texas. Wallace carried Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The strong segregationists states went with Wallace. Nixon was able to put certain southern states in play for the GOP but it was not because of appeals to racism but to new economic issues and political class rising in the south.[7]

Many would have us believe that from Nixon forward the south (which according to them is statically racist) would support the Republican agenda because the GOP as a party is racist. Again the evidence does not support the conclusion. In 1976 Jimmy Carter would sweep the southern states, including all the former dixiecrat states. In 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton would split the southern vote with his opponents. This says more about the candidates and policies of the parties than it does about their stances on race relations.

After the trouncing of Wallace in the 1968 election racial politics was left to Black and White liberals painting the GOP as racist and rewriting the political history of the United States. They would spread urban legends to keep Blacks as a powerful voting block for the Democrat Party. This is not to say that there were never any racists in the GOP. I am sure there were and maybe still are but history has proven that segregation, slavery and Jim Crow were vestiges of the Democrat Party. Those who held to these ideals either died or changed their thinking. An example of this is that of George C. Wallace who later apologized for his stances on Civil rights. People can change for the better. Old hatreds eventually die and a new generation and ideology take their place. Racism is not relegated to the southern states, nor will it ever be totally eradicated. Racists now find themselves without a party to plead their cause and if we are lucky they never will again.

To this date every political campaign has a southern strategy, East coast strategy and a West coast strategy. There are strategies for women and men, college age voters, minorities, immigrants, businessmen and women. One cannot assume that therefore there must be some kind of ill will or intent to win the vote of certain constituents. It is the nature of politics to steal away votes from a voting block that either has never heard your message or never been asked for their support. Democrats know this and thus are afraid that Republicans will one day make in roads into the Black community and erode the 90% voting block that supports their candidates. Thus we expose the urban legends for what they are, hoping that knowledge will chase away ignorance and misinformation equipping people to make decisions based on facts not fables.

[1] Republican Party Platforms: “Republican Party Platform of 1960,” July 25, 1960. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25839.
[2] Republican Party Platforms: “Republican Party Platform of 1968,” August 5, 1968. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25841

[3] Democratic Party Platforms: “Democratic Party Platform of 1968,” August 26, 1968. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29604.

[4] Minor/Third Party Platforms: “American Independent Party Platform of 1968,” October 13, 1968. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29570.

[5] Patrick J. Buchanan, “The Neocons and Nixon’s southern strategy,” Worldnet Daily, http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=30233

[6] Ibid.

[7] See “The End of Southern Exceptionalism,” Richard Johnston of the University of Pennsylvania and Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin argue that the shift in the South from Democratic to Republican was overwhelmingly a question not of race but of economic growth.

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