How Race Shaped American Party Politics

It's a given that the GOP attracts more whites and the Democrats attract more blacks, but it wasn't always so.

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Held back politically and economically by white Democrats, the few blacks who were allowed to vote in the South were also unwavering in their support of Republicans. The Ku Klux Klan, along with white law enforcement, played the heavy and did the physical dirty work of lynching and of enforcing the status quo.

Former University of Mississippi professor James W. Silver, in his book Mississippi: The Closed Society, accused that state of being "as near to approximating a police state as anything we have seen in America." That police state, replicated in most Southern jurisdictions, was designed to maintain "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," as Alabama Gov. George Wallace would later put it.

Shifting Priorities

The Republicans had ceded the South to white Democrats, but Northern Republicans continued to be the good guys. They engaged black voters, supported civil rights legislation and social programs, and had moderate-to-liberal reputations in Northern, Western and Eastern states. Then came the Great Depression, which was widely blamed on the Republicans. 

Attracted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies -- which put poor blacks and whites to work building roads, post offices and other projects -- blacks joined the Democratic Party in force (the Roosevelt Northern wing, that is). Thus formed a fragile, almost nonexistent coalition with white Southerners -- who held on to power in Congress -- that permitted the Democratic Party to dominate presidential elections from 1932 to 1968.     

As the great campaigns for civil rights after World War II heated up, the Southerners and Northerners became ever more belligerent toward each other. Fair-employment laws benefiting blacks were adopted in such states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California, to the utter dismay of white Southerners.

When Northern politicians took the battle to the Democratic Convention in 1948, pushed by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond was prompted to lead white Southerners out of the gathering and on to form the Dixiecrat Party. American politics have not been the same since. 

Then the Voting Rights Act of 1965 permitted a level of political activity never before seen in the black communities of South and North, by removing barriers to registering and casting votes. With the ballot, African Americans altered the face of politics, from local offices to the halls of Congress. They gained not only elected office but also the attendant privileges, perks and jobs, such as being congressional aides and assistants.

Old Habits

Slowly and inexorably, white politicians drifted to the right and into the arms of the GOP, as the party once of Lincoln became more like the party of George Wallace, as far as blacks were concerned. Blacks looked on in horror as white Democrats -- mayors, entire city councils, state legislators, school boards, county sheriffs and other officers, congressmen and senators -- decided that they could no longer support a party that recognized the aspirations of African Americans in its agenda.