This weekend, a Republican asked why I believed pro-segregationist Democrats became Republicans in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Well, because it’s true. I’m not just a student of history, I’m a product of a rural North Carolina county that is half-Black and half-White. I grew up in the midst of the fight over integration and saw, first hand, the transition of the state from a one-party state to a two-party state. Race played a dominant role in that transition. 

Republicans are correct that Democrats and their allies in the business community implemented Jim Crow. They used terror to intimidate African Americans and they used voter suppression laws to disenfranchise Blacks. They effectively created a one-party state in North Carolina that survived for almost 75 years. They created that state by disenfranchising Black voters, rendering the Republican Party ineffective and unelectable in all but small pockets of North Carolina. Today, Democrats look back on their history with shame and regret. They’ve been making amends for more than 50 years.

After the Civil War, Democrats were an almost all-white conservative party, much like the GOP today. Newly freed slaves joined the GOP because Abraham Lincoln gave them their freedom. The Republican Party in the South became a coalition of African Americans, small farmers, and recent immigrants from the North. Over time, they gained power in state and local governments. 

African Americans’ success at electoral politics created a backlash by White supremacists who dominated the Democratic Party. Aligned with para-military and militia groups like the Red Shirts, the Democrats used force and violence to oust Republicans and their allied Populists from office. They then enacted laws that effectively disenfranchised the Black population. They created the one-party state because without African American voters, the Republican Party could no longer win elections in most places and certainly not statewide. 

For almost 50 years, the Democrats’ hold on power was uncontested. The party, though, was not monolithic. The New Deal created two factions, a progressive one and a conservative one, that played out in heated primaries across Southern states. Race dominated much of the debate.

In the wake of World War II, Harry Truman integrated the armed forces, much to the chagrin of Southern Democrats. In protest, segregationists formed the Dixiecrat Party and nominated South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond as its nominee. Thurmond declared “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation.” Thurmond left the Democratic Party for good in 1964 because of the party’s embrace of civil rights and became a Republican leader. 

From the late 1940s into the 1960s, the Democratic Party in the South engaged in an intraparty fight not unlike the one consuming the GOP today. Pro-segregationist conservatives squared off against pro-integration progressives in nasty Democratic primaries. As Gary Pearce mentioned in a recent column, Willis Smith’s 1950 campaign for US Senate used “Wake up White People” as a rallying cry to defeat Frank Porter Graham, the progressive President of the University of North Carolina, in the Democratic Primary. Smith campaign staffer Jesse Helms became a leading opponent of integration and civil rights as a commentator on WRAL and later as a US Senator. Like Thurmond, he left the Democratic Party over its embrace of civil rights legislation. The conservative wing of the Democratic Party followed.

In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon employed what has become known as the “The Southern Strategy” to woo conservative Democrats to vote Republicans by demagoguing racial issues. The Republican strategist Lee Atwater described the strategy. 

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N****r, n****r.’”

https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/

In my own life, I watched the fight over integration of schools tear my county apart. The Ku Klux Klan marched in downtown Wadesboro to protest integration. Conservatives, almost all of whom were registered Democrats at the time, refused to go to send their children to school with Black children and formed a segregationist academy. They almost all supported Jesse Helms in his 1972 race and, by 1980, were regularly supporting Republicans for almost all federal offices. They slowly started changing their registration to Republican after the Reagan Revolution. Today, most of those kids are strong Republicans and Trumpists.

As African Americans regained the right to vote in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, they registered Democratic. As the party became more diverse, some conservative Democrats left the party to become independents or Republican. Many kept their Democratic registration so they could vote in primaries even if they voted for Republicans in general elections. Until the late 1990s, Democrats had a closed primary system and in local races, Democrats still dominated sheriffs and county commission contests. Once the party opened up their primary system, conservatives left in droves.

Today, the GOP has replaced the Democrats as the party of White people. They are more than 90% White and they oppose almost every move toward racial reconciliation, from the removal Confederate monuments from public property to teaching the impact of White supremacy on our politics and society. They look and sound remarkably like the Democratic Party of the early 20th century, denying the impact of slavery and Jim Crow and using voter suppression and gerrymandering to maintain control. The GOP’s lack of self-awareness and their ignorance or denial of their own history are defining features of their party today. Only through confronting their past can Republicans get beyond the reactionary forces that are consuming it now.

The truth will set you free. As a Democrat, I know.  

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