Fifty-five years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Before that, Americans of all races had risked their lives trying to help African Americans exercise their right to vote. John Lewis, whose July 30 funeral was attended by three former presidents (two Democrats and a Republican), was nearly beaten to death in Alabama while marching to register Blacks to vote just four months before the bill’s signing.
This law prohibited racial discrimination in voting, which, until then, was a fact of life in the South. Important sections of the Voting Rights Act were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, but it still stands as arguably the most significant civil rights legislation in U.S. history. The passage of this legislation also sparked major changes in America’s political parties.
The Southern Democrats, a significant faction within the national Democratic Party since the Civil War, were white Southerners who had institutionalized Jim Crow, supported racial segregation, and kept Blacks from voting. The segregated South was a one-party state, with the Republican Party virtually non-existent there. From Reconstruction until the New Deal, Black Americans outside the South tended to vote Republican.
As the national Democratic Party began to embrace civil rights under Harry Truman (with his executive order desegregating the military and the 1948 Democratic Convention’s civil rights plank), Southern Democrats balked. Strom Thurmond left the party in protest and formed the pro-segregation “States Rights Democratic Party,” known as the Dixiecrats. He went on to win Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina in the 1948 presidential election.
Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists might have enjoyed support from Democratic presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, but in the South, they were confronted by racist Democrats such as Bull Connor and George Wallace. When Lewis and others were viciously attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the police were operating under the orders of Southern Democratic politicians.
From the freeing of the slaves in 1865 through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it was the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—that championed every piece of federal civil rights legislation. Although the Voting Rights Act was sponsored by a liberal, pro-civil-rights president who was himself a Southern Democrat, most Southern Democrats opposed it.
However, Johnson could count on strong support from Republicans: In the House, 82% of Republicans voted yes, compared to 78% of Democrats; in the Senate, 94% of Republicans voted yes, compared to 73% of Democrats.
But things changed after that. In 1968, with the country deeply divided over civil rights and the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and the Republican Party implemented the cynical “Southern Strategy” aimed at converting disgruntled and alienated white Southern Democrats into Republicans. Under the guise of its “Law and Order” slogan, the Nixon campaign made direct appeals to the opponents of civil rights and racial equality—and the GOP has never been the same.
Over the ensuing five decades, a philosophical and programmatic switch occurred between the parties. Today, most white Southerners are Republicans, and almost all Black Southerners (and most African Americans nationally) are Democrats. The Republican Party is now led by a president who, like the southern Democrats of old, openly embraces the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments and white supremacy. It is difficult to argue that today’s GOP remains “the party of Lincoln.”•
Atlas is a professor of political science and was the founding director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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