- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005


By William E. Leuchtenburg

Louisiana State University, $45, 672 pages


Now that power and wealth are moving disproportionately to the South and Southwest, the Southern states are not regarded any more as the sick and wounded of American life. This magnificently researched volume chronicles the relationships of three presidents with the states of the old Confederacy — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. William E. Leuchtenburg, at the age of 83, is one of the premier historians of the previous generation and has provided a very rich tale of the South’s politics and economy.

The book starts and ends with a reaffirmation of the importance of regionalism in American life, but actually it becomes very quickly a story of the prevalence of Jim Crow racism from FDR to the present. During his long bout with polio, Roosevelt settled in Warm Springs, and in the process became in his own mind and in the judgments of many others, an honorary Georgian. In fact, he was nominated for president because of very strong Southern support. He ran badly in the Northeast, which was still wedded in 1932 to Catholic Al Smith.

As president, FDR initially won the near universal respect of the white South, but as he and his wife, Eleanor, became more liberal and more concerned with racial justice, opposition built up. Despite that reputation, Roosevelt was cautious and did not even support antilynching legislation for fear of alienating important Southern senators. The mixture of FDR’s charm and the New Deal’s cornucopia of benefits gave him an enormous reservoir of popular support that overcame the opposition of some Southern political leaders. They feared, quite rightly, that the New Deal would upend the old racial status quo.

FDR was remarkably candid in reminding his “fellow” Southerners of the backwardness of their region — one third of the nation living ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed, as he said. World War II brought increased commitments to fair employment practices, which FDR acquiesced in rather than promoted, and then the GI Bill of Rights, which opened up limited opportunities for all veterans regardless of race. Some liberal and black historians have denied that the New Deal or the GI Bill had much practical effect on black rural America. They should read the contemporary interviews of black Americans in this book; clearly they knew best who protected and promoted their interests. Consequently, after the elections of 1936 and 1940, more Southern leaders saw FDR as a carpetbagger, another liberal New Yorker, and a wide-eyed socialist.

His successor was from a Southern Confederate family, and it was argued he surely would understand the Jim Crow mores. But Harry Truman, who was not above crusty racist language and references all his life, turned out to be a turncoat to the old South. He respected the Union, admired Abraham Lincoln, and was horrified that black veterans returning from the war were assaulted in Mississippi. Truman also pushed for a civil rights national agenda, including fair employment and open housing and began the integration of the armed services. The South seethed with feelings of betrayal, inundated the White House with letters of protest, and threatened to block his nomination in 1948. The speeches and rhetoric of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and his supporters, who ran a separate third party ticket aimed at defeating the Democrats, were clearly not leading states rights battles against an overarching federal government; they were involved in blatant racist appeals for the old ways of Jim Crow. Only those far from the fight today could believe otherwise.

Truman was a big disappointment to the old South. Later came the greatest civil rights president of the last century. He was another Southerner — Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, and he pushed the liberal agenda on race far beyond FDR, Truman and John F. Kennedy. In part to overcome the national anxieties about having a Southerner in the White House, Johnson put his considerable legislative skills behind legal equality and social justice. It was an incredible performance — especially before Vietnam exploded. Again the old South lamented that one of its own had betrayed the understandings of Jim Crow society.

Johnson electrified one biracial audience in New Orleans when he screamed out that Southern politicians had been thwarted from doing more for their region by the insistence of their folk back home that they talk “Nigra, Nigra, Nigra.” The crowd gasped at the words, but then the black listeners erupted in applause, and the whites followed suit. His candor had won the day.

In his election campaign in 1964, Johnson faced Sen. Barry Goldwater and his allies who also used the racial issue skillfully and disguised it as states rights. LBJ predicted that the Civil Rights Bill, which he so ably pushed through Congress, would cost the Democrats the South for a generation. He proved more than right.

Above all though, these Democratic presidents were able to establish a personal tie with the American people, including many of those in the South, which explains their successes despite enormous opposition.

The party has since lost that empathy. In 1934, a black farmer named Sylvester Harris spent his last $10 calling Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. Remarkably FDR took the call personally, and listened as the farmer told him he was going to lose his small farm. The patrician president quietly promised he would look into it, and get back to him. Later, after a flurry of activity, the farmer kept his land. Long after FDR died, Sylvester Harris continued to work the farm and he said that he could not give it up, because that was the farm President Roosevelt wanted him to have. The story became immortalized in a ballad, and so did its hero.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the American presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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