- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002


The Dixiecrats' run for the presidency in 1948 was a political footnote, but it signaled big changes to come.

The short-lived party, officially the States' Rights Democrats, boosted an ambitious politician named Strom Thurmond, helped unravel decades of Democratic control in the South and heralded years of tenacious, violent Southern backlash to civil rights.

Now the pro-segregation offshoot of the Democratic Party has been invoked again in national politics, after Senate Republican leader Trent Lott's warm embrace of Mr. Thurmond's quixotic bid for the presidency 54 years ago.

Nine out of every 10 voters in Mr. Lott's home state of Mississippi chose the ticket of Mr. Thurmond and his running mate, Gov. Fielding Wright of Mississippi.

Mr. Lott's words at a 100th birthday celebration for Mr. Thurmond "and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either" threw new light on a pivotal chapter in American political history.

The Dixiecrats were a response to the national Democratic Party's adoption of a civil rights plank to its platform. Southern delegates, Mr. Thurmond among them, walked out of the national party's convention.

"It was just a terrible moment," said former South Carolina Gov. John West, who was a law student and war veteran when Mr. Thurmond, then his governor, walked out.

"There was a tremendous emotional fear among the white community that integration would mean white girls dating black men, amalgamation of the races the feeling was, I hate to say it, overwhelming, if not unanimous among the white community."

The Democratic split occurred in the midst of increasing pressure after World War II to take action on civil rights.

Black men returned from military service segregation was the order of the day in the military services during the war with new ambitions, while registration drives throughout the South, backed by federal court rulings, sought to get more blacks to vote. The poll tax a dollar a year in some states and other obstacles blocked black voters in several states states.

At the same time, there was a wave of racial violence across the South, said Kari Frederickson, history professor at the University of Alabama and author of "The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968."

President Harry S. Truman wanted to court black votes, and "was also quite repulsed by the violence, particularly toward men in uniform," Mr. Frederickson said. Mr. Truman addressed Congress on civil rights, and then the party adopted a civil rights plank.

The Dixiecrats never expected to win the presidency, but to deny an electoral vote victory to either Mr. Truman or the Republican candidate, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, which would let the House of Representatives choose the president, where each state would get one vote.

But they didn't come close. Mr. Thurmond won only Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama for a total of 39 electoral votes. He captured 56 percent of the white vote in the Deep South but only 12 percent of the white vote in the other eight states of the Confederacy.

Still, Mr. Thurmond's campaign weakened the hold national Democrats had held on the South since the Civil War. White conservatives slowly began to vote for Republicans for president, and then other offices. Georgia and Arkansas, the last Southern states to cast their electoral votes for a Republican, often vote Republican now and both will have Republican governors in 2003.

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