Pierre Atlas: How Voting Rights Act changed our political parties

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Pierre AtlasFifty-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.”•

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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 ibjedit@ibj.com.


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2 thoughts on “Pierre Atlas: How Voting Rights Act changed our political parties

  1. Quote: 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.”

    No, Pierre; it is not. Your personal vendetta against President Trump reeks with every stroke on your keyboard. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, but “shame” is a word not in most liberals’ lexicon.

    To the contrary, the percentage of employed black Americans has risen to new heights under President Trump. You’d know that if you’d take off your leftist blinders long enough to look at employment facts rather than a personality you don’t like.

    Stick this from Marc Little, Board Chairman, Center for Urban Renewal and Education, in your pipe and smoke it, rather than what you apparently smoke before penning your terribly-biased, unfounded columns:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpxItrtVTKM

    Marc Little stated in a recent interview that he thinks President Trump has done more for the black community than any President since Abraham Lincoln…and he’s right.

    You are an embarrassment to contemporary journalism…but, tragically, you are among the majority of people who call themselves journalists nowadays. You remind me of Mark Twain’s famous observation, “If you don’t read the newspapers, you are uninformed…and if you do read them, you are misinformed.” And he died before being subjected to your consistently hateful writing. (You just can’t help yourself, can you?)

    I suppose I can take comfort knowing your name will be long forgotten…and even then, none too soon, I might add…before that of Mark Twain.

  2. Oh, and by the way, what evidence do you have that President Trump “openly embraces the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and white supremacy?”
    Geeze, you are annoying. You must spend a lot of time having coffee with Indianapolis Monthly columnist Philip Gulley. Are you two guys twins who were separated at birth? If so, I can understand why; having both of you to raise would tax the patience of any one set of parents, especially when they saw how you both “turned out.”

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