Alternative and revisionist histories of the South

by | Aug 8, 2017 | Editor's Blog, History | 13 comments

It seems HBO and #NCPOL are diving into controversial Southern history and causing a lot of chatter on social media. HBO has contracted to produce a series based on the alternative history question “What if the South had won the Civil War?” North Carolina GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse tried to assert that the Democratic Party of today is the same as the one that disenfranchised African-Americans in 1900 and introduced the Jim Crow South, unleashing a reign of terror that lasted until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Race has always been a major force in American politics, especially in the South. It confounded the framers of the constitution and split the nation in two just 80 years after declaring Independence. Today, the politics of white nationalism played a major role in defining, if not electing, Donald Trump. We’re still a long way from the color-blind society that so many idealistic conservatives believe is so close.

The HBO series touched a nerve because, as Ta-Nehisi Coats points out, the Confederacy may have lost the Civil War but the old Confederacy is still revered in certain circles. Unlike Nazi Germany, the subject of the alternative history series Man in the High Castle, Southerners idolized the Confederacy following the Civil War. Statues celebrate the losing generals and most Southern courthouses still have a bronze Confederate soldier facing north. Instead of the Confederate battle flag being banned, it was incorporated into many of the Southern states’ flags. In South Carolina, it took a massacre of African-Americans in 2015 to keep it from flying on the grounds of the state capitol. Too many people today still identify with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy to make the alternative history comfortable, especially for African-Americans.

Woodhouse, for his part, tried to obscure the GOP’s lousy record on civil rights over the last 60 years by insinuating that today’s Democratic Party is the same as the racist one of 1900. He clearly doesn’t understand history. Political parties undergo realignments but the ugly forces of reaction that are tearing apart today’s Republican Party have been here since the beginning of the republic.

Back in 1900, political parties were far less homogenous than they are today. Democrats were the conservative party in North Carolina and throughout the South. They were largely the party of the Old Confederacy with a white supremacist platform.

Republicans at the time were advocating for more access to the ballot, more local government control and more funding for public education. At the federal level during that era, Teddy Roosevelt was busting trusts, increasing regulations on corporations, introducing an income tax on the wealthy and using the heavy hand of the federal government to preserve land and expand national parks. Clearly, they bear little resemblance to the Republicans running the GOP today.

Around the turn of the century, Democrats across the South introduced legislation that disenfranchised African-Americans, a key part of the Republican coalition. Without black voters, Democrats established one-party rule. Over the next 60 years, the Republican Party in the South all but disappeared.

A political realignment began with the New Deal. Many conservative Southern Democrats weren’t comfortable with the expanded role of the federal government. The first cracks in the one-party South began when Strom Thurmond and a group of segregationists left the party to run as Dixiecrats in 1948 to protest Harry Truman’s integration of the armed forces. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the last straw for many conservative Democrats in the South. They abandoned the Democratic Party for its push toward integration and Nixon’s Southern Strategy welcomed them into the Republican Party. In 1972, former Democrat Jesse Helms became the first Republican elected to the US Senate from North Carolina during the 20th century.

The reactionary Democrats who disenfranchised African-Americans at the turn of the twentieth century became the reactionary wing of the Republican Party, fighting integration and civil rights legislation under the guise of states’ rights. Republicans increasingly used race to divide the electorate. Inflammatory ads like George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton spot and Jesse Helms’ Hands ad inflamed racial tensions.

There’s a straight line from the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon to the election of Donald Trump. The racially-motivated populists who left the Democratic Party in the 1960s and ‘70s became the populist Trumpists who are today the dominant force in the Republican Party. They represent the politics of grievance, feeling left behind by society and blaming minorities, immigrants, government and big business for their problems.

Reactionary forces have been part of our country since its founding. Their influence ebbs and flows. They’ve infected the Democratic Party and now are housed in the GOP. They cause political realignments like the one we’re probably going through now. The conservatives of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley have little in common with the alt-right of Steve Bannon. Similarly, the democratic socialists that make up the left flank of the Democratic Party have no tolerance for the liberals that have controlled the party since Bill Clinton won in 1992.

As Coats says, there’s no real reason to make an alternative history of what happened if Confederates won because the history of the South from 1900 to 1965 gives us a close approximation. A better story line would be “What would the country look like if freed slaves were really given 40 acres and a mule and Reconstruction lasted for fifty years instead of just a dozen?”  Maybe the one-party South wouldn’t have happened. Maybe the Great Migration that transformed our northern cities wouldn’t have been so great. Maybe, just maybe, racial tensions would be less and an African-American middle class would have more economic and political power.


  1. Stephen Lewis, Sr.

    I am going to take a stab at the last paragraph and answer the question. The reason why what would have happened if the South would have won as opposed to a fifty year reconstruction is that the South winning the war was alot more plausible than a fifty. For those of us who majored in history as opposed to poly sci who understand this,

    On paper the North should have never been in danger of losing but for several reasons they almost did. A combination of military blunders and the fact that the people most politically supportive of the northern effort in the war did not seem interested in personally fighting it, ie. chicken hawks. In the end there effort was successful by simply overwhelming the South. This made Northern casualties higher than southern causalities, this is a rare thing when the winning side actually loses more men.

    Had Lincoln lived reconstruction would have probably lasted about a year, since his death though the radical republicans were able to get about a decade out of reconstruction. By 1876 the country was in its worst economic downturn in its young history. Until the great depression it was the worst economic downturn. The reconstruction governments were considered corrupt and inept and expensive. Which was a microcosm of the whole Grant administration. The northern white voters turned as strongly against that war, including the veterans who faught it, as did we saw in 2006 on the war in Iraq. President Hayes a northern General ran saying he was to leave the south be and concentrate on what the country wanted. He still nearly lost, but he pulled out of the south.

    The one question what if Lincoln had lived. Most historians agree he did not want a reconstruction, but could he have solved the rest of the issues and that is something we will never know.

  2. randolph voller

    Dallas Woodhouse should know better than to attempt linking the current NCGOP to the Fusionist party of the 1890’s let alone the Republican Party founded by abolitionists and championed by Lincoln.

    When the chips were down in 1898 and a coup was commenced in Wilmington against elected officials in Wilmington who were Black Republicans, the Republican President McKinley did not send federal troops to quell the coup and/or protect Black Republicans in Wilmington.

    The team jerseys may still read “Democrat” or “Republican”, but for the most part the players have changed teams and the political party that Dallas represents today has more in common with the white supremacists that he denounces from that era in North Carolina history than the “fusionists” that he claims as Republicans.

  3. Steve Hutton

    If the Confederacy had been firmly established, either with our without a civil war, there would most likely have been a servile insurrection, ultimately creating a separate African-American nation stretching from South Carolina through Louisiana.

  4. Stephen Lewis, Sr.

    I think you have so oversimplified this that both of you are wrong. No todays republican party is not yesterday southern Democratic party. There are traces of that southern Democratic party in both parties but so much has changed with Technology that you can not be credible and say the current republican party is yesterdays Democratic party. When I first became active in the Democratic party in the 1980’s the party was lead by eastern North Carolina machines that included tobacco and hog interest, led by none other than Jim Hunt and his wolfpack mafia and a group of mountain rural areas. The GOP in the 1980’s was a group of corporate lawyers from south Charlotte Textile execs from the foot hills, scalawags from the north western part of the state the beef industry which thought the Democrats gave too much favor to the hog industry, and some old Whig party areas in Davidson Randolph, Davie, county areas, Now since the 1980’s some of the rural counties have become more Republican especially in the Eastern party of the state, but that has as much to do with the fact that the post Jim Hunt era the party has practically abandoned its connection to Tobacco the hog industry, and give the party a more urban look.

  5. jay ligon

    GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse is a liar whose volume knob is permanently set to 11. He is a Koch Industries implant with a level of discourse toxicity that befits his representation of one of the nation’s most noxious polluters. He speaks for the despicable brickbat wing of the far right and is the source of much disinformation. Woodhouse worked for a Koch cutout called Americans for Prosperity before taking his current post as head of the GOP.

    One cannot graduate from college, even from Campbell, and still, believe the revisionist history he spouts. He isn’t ignorant of the past. He is a liar. The slender thread of truth about the Democratic Party’s relationship to slavery and racism ceased to be relevant more than 50 years ago; it was snipped in 1964 when LBJ pushed the Voting Rights Act through a reluctant Congress. The migration of racists into the Republican Party is not a matter of speculation; it is a fact. It has a name: Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Ten years before the VRA, the unanimous Brown decision, which ended “separate but equal” was decided by the Warren Court with a majority of the associate justices from the Democratic side of the aisle.

    Racists left the Democratic Party when they saw black people taking leadership roles, people like Jesse Jackson. Republicans didn’t want to be in the same room as Jackson, much less the same political party.

    As the spearhead of the racist suppression of the black vote, Woodhouse is a divisive figure who sees the political advantages for the GOP of keeping black people from the polls, and he has zero credibility when discussing the history of racial politics, no matter how loudly he shouts at the rafters.

    • Norma P Munn

      “discourse toxicity ” perfect choice of words. Elegant.

  6. Ellen Jefferies

    “… the color-blind society that so many idealistic conservatives believe is so close.”

    Not sure I am in the same universe as Mr. Mills. When did a color-blind society become a conservative belief? Seeme just the opposite to me!

    And on that note, I came accross the contention that the race issue – whites vs colored – was used as a major inducement to unite the states in the American revolution

    • don

      Ellen, are you unaware of the Republican majority on the US Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act on the specific grounds that racism was a thing of the past, & the VRA was no longer necessary?

      • Ellen Jefferies

        yes Don, I did notice the SCOTUS decision. But I didn’t think the decision meant they believed that society had become color blind. I thought It was a decision to enable more voter suppression. What I may have missed is that Mr. Mills was tongue-in-cheek (sarcastic) in which case I apologize for being thick.

  7. David Scott

    Is it Woodhouse or Outhouse?

    • Norma P Munn

      Thanks for the laugh. Nicely done!

    • Mary Kane


      • Norma Munn

        Also outstanding!

Related Posts


Get the latest posts from PoliticsNC delivered right to your inbox!

You have Successfully Subscribed!