President Lyndon B. Johnson was on target when he said in 1965 that with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Democrats had lost Southern white voters for a generation. He was off a bit and too optimistic. The loss has lasted longer than a generation, and the reason for it goes deep into our nation's history.
Since the 1860s, many whites in the Southern states have harbored a special, deep dislike for any of their brethren, anywhere on the continent, who took up the cause of former slaves. Think of the reactions to Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Ulysses S. Grant, Viola Liuzzo, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
The civil rights movement jump-started a change in American politics that led to today's alignment of blacks voting heavily for Democrats and many whites supporting Republicans. It used to be the reverse — after all, the GOP was the party of Lincoln, who signed the proclamation that freed African Americans from slavery. It was also the party of the black politicians of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
What happened? The switch in party loyalties, which happened in two stages, was based purely on racism.
At a conference I covered in Louisville, Ky., on school integration in 1976, a Southern white attorney who was an unwavering supporter of desegregation stunned the audience by declaring flatly that the problem they were having integrating the schools was simply, "White folks don't like niggers."
I accepted that observation from such an expert, since it complemented the above-mentioned statement by Johnson about the Democrats losing Southern white voters. It's a dynamic you can trace back to slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the interminable, unceasing fight against civil rights and whatever was proposed to assist blacks from their consignment to the basement of the American economic, social and political structure.
When Abraham Lincoln's Republicans gave ex-slaves access to the ballot, Southerners' war against those rights was on. Bit by bit, during the Reconstruction period and throughout the 19th century, they chipped away at blacks' newly gained rights.
Over time, the GOP came to concur with the erosion of those rights and allowed Southern whites to take back control of the region from Union troops, to the detriment of African Americans. Southern Democrats remained unwavering in their opposition to black enfranchisement as they became powerful once again in Congress and, eventually, in the presidency.
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.
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.
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.
President Richard Nixon codified that move as Republican policy when he used his "Southern strategy" to wean white voters from Democrats in his successful bid to win the presidency in 1968. In an electorate already open to racist appeals, it did not take much effort to pull off.
Over the following decades, code words such as conservatism, small government, intrusive federal power and lower taxes appealed to their fear of losing power or money to those they considered inferior — a fear that was, at its core, anti-black and more recently anti-immigrant.
Finally, the GOP has morphed into the radical politics of Tea Party advocates, a situation from which traditional Republicans are desperately trying to extricate themselves. Racism has always been accompanied by ridiculous denials, such as Donald Trump's declaration that he has "a great relationship with the blacks," or Glenn Beck's sponsorship of a march on Washington. Shucking off the ridiculous is part of the task facing GOP leaders if they wish to recapture the White House in 2012.
But it seems that Republicans cannot give up their old habits. For example, they continue to alienate and insult blacks and other nonwhites by promoting and supporting laws that would have the effect of depressing the voting of the young, minorities and the elderly. In several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Wisconsin, Republicans are leading drives for voter-identification laws. The actions are being fought in the courts and by the Department of Justice.
For those reasons, African-American disdain for Republicans and their policies will likely intensify as the political season progresses into 2012.
Paul Delaney is a frequent contributor to The Root.