The not-so-solid South

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page - Ge­orge Reed Jr. An his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive

In an­tic­i­pa­tion of the pas­sage of Lyn­don John­son’s civil and vot­ing rights acts in 1964, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thur­mond de­fected to the Repub­li­can Party. He was soon fol­lowed by the other South­ern sen­a­tors and the for­merly Demo­cratic “Solid South” quickly be­came solidly Repub­li­can.

But this change hardly al­tered the coun­try’s ba­sic leg­isla­tive land­scape. It merely made hon­est men of South­ern Democrats who had been vot­ing with the Repub­li­cans all along any­way on is­sues in­volv­ing la­bor, busi­ness reg­u­la­tion and taxes. In re­turn the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans would ei­ther vote with the South­ern­ers on seg­re­ga­tion bills or ab­sent them­selves when these came to a vote. The in­de­pen­dent press dubbed this shame­less col­lu­sion the “Un­holy Al­liance.”

In those days Thur­mond was the ac­knowl­edged leader of the Se­nate’s South­ern Democrats. He had also run as the Dix­ie­crat pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee against Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man in 1948. I was a per­sonal wit­ness to some of those go­ings on since the Dix­ie­crat nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tion was held in the Birm­ing­ham City Au­di­to­rium near my home. Al­though as a teenager I nei­ther un­der­stood nor cared much about politics, I en­joyed the spec­ta­cle and the hoopla.

Al­though the Dix­iecrats en­ter­tained no thoughts of win­ning the pres­i­dency, they hoped to drain off enough elec­toral votes to throw the elec­tion into the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives where they hoped to have enough votes to force some con­ces­sions from the reg­u­lar Democrats. But they failed to­tally in the Gen­eral Elec­tion with only 39 elec­toral votes to Tru­man’s 303. But the Dix­iecrats crowed that al­though de­feated, they still stood up for their prin­ci­ples, a sort of car­ry­over from the “lost cause” mys­tique of the Civil War and Re­con­struc­tion era. But let’s take a closer look at Sen­a­tor Thur­mond’s “prin­ci­ples.”

If Old Strom truly had prin­ci­ples against ra­cial mix­ing, they didn’t ex­tend to all rooms of his house. Af­ter his death there sur­faced a mid­dle-aged mixed-race lady, Essie Mae Wash­ing­tonWil­liams, whom Thur­mond pri­vately ac­knowl­edged fa­ther­ing. And, to his ev­er­last­ing credit, he fi­nanced her ed­u­ca­tion. The daugh­ter was con­ceived in 1948 when Thur­mond was a 22-year-old high school teacher and coach and the mother was a 15-year-old maid in his fa­ther’s home. But Strom Thur­mond, Thomas Jef­fer­son, et. al., weren’t the only South­ern gen­tle­men to prac­tice “se­lec­tive” seg­re­ga­tion. Mis­ce­gena­tion was a prac­tice sel­dom openly dis­cussed but widely ac­knowl­edged and winked at in the South. On the other hand, any sex­ual over­tures by a black male to­ward a white fe­male in those times would have swiftly re­sulted in his dan­gling from a limb of the nearest mag­no­lia tree.

Get­ting back to my orig­i­nal sub­ject, what has ac­tu­ally changed in Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion as a re­sult of the 1964 re­align­ment has been a rad­i­cal­iza­tion and ex­treme par­ti­san­ship in both par­ties. The se­cret of Amer­ica’s suc­cess for more than two cen­turies has been po­lit­i­cal mod­er­a­tion. But to­day the terms “Demo­crat” and “Repub­li­can” have be­come mere syn­onyms for “lib­eral” and “con­ser­va­tive.” The re­sult­ing con­gres­sional grid­lock has of­ten made it prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to get any­thing done leg­isla­tively. The up­com­ing Novem­ber elec­tions of­fer a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to be­gin restor­ing some san­ity to our body politic. But we must get out and vote!

Ge­orge B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at reed1600@bell­south.net.

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