There have always been white supremacists among us. In that sense what we witnessed in Charlottesville was part of a long history that reaches back to the very founding of the nation. It is the central paradox of American history that the United States began as a nation committed simultaneously to freedom and slavery.
No surprise then that white supremacy has been woven into the fabric of our political parties as they have shifted and evolved over the last century and a half. The Republican Party was founded in 1856 as the party of abolitionists; Southern Democrats defended slavery and created the Confederacy when Republican Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861.
After the Civil War and the end of slavery, Southern Democrats built a new regime of white supremacy. It included legalized segregation as well as extra-legal forms of oppression, and it was enforced through regular and horrific acts of terrorist violence. The most flamboyant white supremacists at the turn of the 20th century were Democratic politicians. Like South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, who denounced President Theodore Roosevelt for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, vowing that it would require “our killing a thousand n***s in the South before they learn their place again.” White Supremacy was the foundation upon which the “solid South” was built, and it was solidly Democratic.
That foundation began to crack during the Great Depression as more voters from outside the South supported Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. After the war this geographic shift led to a movement away from white supremacy within the party. Democratic President Harry Truman issued an executive order desegregating the army in 1948, and in that same year the party’s official platform endorsed African American civil rights for the first time.
These changes were greeted with howls of outrage by Southern Democrats, for whom all political considerations were secondary to their commitment to white supremacy. In 1948, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond led a walk-out of the Democratic Party’s presidential convention and ran for president himself on the “States’ Rights” ticket. They were called “Dixiecrats,” and their central pledge was to maintain racial segregation. They won four southern states in that election.
What began as a walkout turned into something of an exodus. As the Democratic Party committed itself increasingly to civil rights, Southern Democrats started leaving the party in droves. President Lyndon Johnson, himself a Southern Democrat, knew as much. After he signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 Johnson quipped to his aide Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
That was certainly the thesis of Kevin Phillips’ highly influential and prescient book The Emerging Republican Majority, published in 1969. Phillips had worked on Richard Nixon’s campaign the year before. As a Republican political operative, Phillips helped construct the party’s “Southern strategy” in the 1970s. Phillips saw the situation quite starkly: the more the Democratic Party became associated with African Americans, the more what he called “negrophobe” whites would become Republicans. He was largely right.
The Southern Strategy triumphed in 1980. Campaigning in August, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech near Philadelphia, Mississippi. That town was most infamous as the site of the white supremacist murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan did not mention them. Instead, he echoed Strom Thurmond’s 1948 call for “states’ rights.” The dog-whistle had been blown, and hearing it, white supremacists knew they had a home in Reagan’s Republican Party.
Lee Atwater was one of Reagan’s advisors, and in a 1981 interview he explained the Southern Strategy in terms that are shocking if only for their candor. Admitting that you couldn’t use the “n” word anymore – more’s the pity – he continued: “so you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. . .and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Atwater went on to manage George H. W. Bush’s presidential run in 1988 and was then made chairman of the Republican National Committee.
White supremacists have always been among us. After roughly a century of catering to them, the Democratic Party decided to purge them instead. It was politically costly, but it was unquestionably the right thing to do. So now they have gravitated to the GOP because the party opened its arms to them.
The Democratic Party has shed its past. We’re waiting for the Republican Party to shed its present.
Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History in Oxford, Ohio.