As Democrats gather in Denver this week to have their quadrennial party and nominate Barack Obama for president, I hope he remembers that it was South Carolina that set him on course to this historic moment. Before our Democratic primary in February, Obama was still a face in the crowd of presidential wannabes. Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.
S.C. Democrats gave Obama a resounding victory that day, doing what would have been inconceivable a few decades ago — supporting a black man for president.
The Democrats were a different party 60 years ago when they gathered in Philadelphia to nominate Harry Truman for his own term in the White House. There wasn't much enthusiasm for Truman, whom many viewed as a placeholder after the death of FDR elevated him to the presidency. What troubled many southerners, though, was the national Democratic Party's growing insistence on civil rights for southern blacks.
In the sweltering, un-air-conditioned Convention Hall, Democrats divided sharply over a proposed civil rights plank in the platform, which would, among other things, desegregate the armed forces and outlaw lynching. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey spoke passionately for the plank: "The time is now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."
When the measure passed on a close vote, the Mississippi delegation and half the Alabama delegation walked out of the convention. A few days later, Truman desegregated the military by executive order. By that time southern Democrats were in full revolt. Some 7,000 of them had gathered in Birmingham to launch the States Rights Party, a.k.a. the Dixiecrats. Two southern governors had already turned down the party's presidential nomination when Strom Thurmond walked into the hall and was greeted by a forest of Confederate flags and a chorus of "Dixie."
He was the third person to be offered the presidential nomination, and he snapped it up. In his acceptance speech that day, Thurmond famously declared, "I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
The Dixiecrats entertained no serious hope of winning the election, but they thought they might carry enough states — with their electoral votes — to keep either Truman or Dewey from gaining an electoral majority. Then the election would go to the U.S. House of Representatives to be decided, and the Dixiecrats would be in the catbird seat, casting their support to the candidate who denounced civil rights most volubly. Had they succeeded, they would have set the nascent civil rights movement back a decade or more.
As it happened, the Dixiecrats carried only four southern states — including S.C. Truman won a surprising victory, and the Democrats embarked on a civil rights agenda that would transform the South and the nation. But Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats were not finished. The Dixiecrats returned to the national Democratic Party but continued to oppose desegregation at every turn. One of their leading champions was Thurmond, who used his Dixiecrat presidential exposure to launch a 48-year career in the U.S. Senate.
In July 1964, a bipartisan coalition (composed of a higher percentage of congressional Republicans than Democrats) passed the historic Civil Rights Act, desegregating all public accommodations. The South revolted, led again by Thurmond, who switched to the Republican Party and urged other office holders to follow. In the presidential election that fall, five southern states — including S.C., of course — went Republican, breaking the Democratic hold on the South.
The following year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing poll taxes, literacy tests, and other statutory obstacles to black voter registration. (In the Senate, Thurmond opposed this legislation as vehemently as he had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) Under federal protection, blacks registered to vote in record numbers and naturally joined the Democratic Party. Whites continued to shift their allegiance to the Republican Party, creating the racial and partisan polarities which define southern politics today.
Anyone who denies that the southern Republican Party was built on the rhetoric of racism and segregation is as misinformed as those who deny the Civil War was fought over slavery. (Actually, the two are probably the same.)
And so we arrive in an age when the party of Lincoln has become the party of segregation and racial politics, while the party of secession has transformed itself into the bulwark of civil rights. We live in ironic times, indeed. I hope Barack Obama appreciates how ironic.