The Solid South
And a Post-Racial Era
October 27, 2008
The Solid South
It's a little difficult to determine exactly when the Solid South became an America political institution. In part, the difficulty rests on how we define the Solid South. If the term refers to the period when southern states predictably and reliably supported the Democratic Party, the first year would be either 1876 or 1880, and the last would be 1960. But if we use the term Solid South to describe southern states voting as a block, particularly in Presidential elections, bound in the beginning by slavery, and later by racism, and occasionally shifting from one party to another, we could conceivably start counting in 1820, the first election year when Mississippi and Alabama were part of the Union, and would continue the reckoning to the present moment.
Though seeds of the Solid South certainly were sown earlier, I think its clear beginning is 1860, when all of the soon-to-be Confederate states, except Tennessee and Virginia, voted as a block. By 1864, they clearly were a block, still in secession from the Union, and from 1868 through 1876 the states of the Solid South were in various stages of reconstruction, without stable political structures. In 1880, though, they returned to the 1860 pattern, and voted with even greater solidarity than they'd exhibited twenty years earlier—with Tennessee and Virginia now on board.
Some argument can also be had regarding which states to include in the Solid South. The tally could be as few as four or as many as twelve. The four would be those that have voted together near ninety percent of the time: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, The larger set would be the states of the Confederacy, plus Oklahoma, (Oklahoma became a state in 1907, but as a territory was sometimes considered part of the Confederacy.) I favor a somewhat fluid list. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are almost always found in the block. Louisiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina are usually there, each having voted as part of the Solid South at least eighty-five percent of the time, during the years that each has been a state, beginning with the 1820 election. The last group is Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia and Florida, These five have been with the Solid South seventy to eighty-five percent of the time, but have the added characteristic that they all separated form the others in 1928, and again from 1952 through 1964 (with the exception of 1960 Texas).
By the way, you can track the history of the Solid South clearly and graphically at Timeline of U.S. Presidential Elections, Or for the years prior to 1860, use Wikipedia, starting with the page: United States presidential election, 1856, and follow the links at the bottom to see earlier years. It's much more fun to scroll through the Timeline than to digest my three paragraphs above!
Three Seminal Elections
Now that we have a working definition of the Solid South, lets explore three seminal elections, 1948, 1964, and 2008. I classify them as seminal, not so much for the changes they wrought as for what they revealed to us about the changes we were experiencing.
1948—Desegregation of the Military
1948 set the stage for American Presidential politics from then until now, and likely for decades yet to come. On July 26, 1948 President Harry Truman issued an executive order, desegregating the U. S. armed forces. At that year's Democratic National Convention, after Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey urged adoption of an anti-segregationist plank in the party platform, many southern delegates walked out of the convention, and later formed the States' Rights Democratic Party (the Dixiecrats). They held a convention of their own, and nominated segregationist South Carolina Governor, Strom Thurmond for President.
In the ensuing election, the Dixiecrats won thirty-nine electoral votes. Harry Truman still won the election with 303 electoral votes. (At that time, 266 were necessary for a victory majority.) He had been widely expected to lose the election to Republican Thomas Dewey, due to the southern split, as well as another splinter party, the Progressives, which also took votes from him. Truman received 49.6% of the popular vote, and the Dixiecrats received 2.4%. Had the Dixiecrats kept their race-based political alliance with the Democratic Party, as they had for nearly seventy years, Truman would have won an easy victory, with more than 50% of the popular vote.
Though the people of Georgia voted for Truman and the Democrats in 1948, they can't be perceived as having split with the segregationist, racist politics of the Solid South. They were still in the block, and 1948 presages the next seminal election in this discussion, that of 1964.
But before we dig into the '64 election, a quick visit to the intervening pollings is appropriate. The 1952 and 1956 elections weren't much impacted by race, because they were dominated by the candidacy of General Dwight Eisenhower, the immensely popular Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in World War II. Eisenhower was courted by both major parties in 1948, and again in 1952. He could have run and won in either party, in either year. In 1948, he declined, but in 1952, he declared himself to be a Republican, and a candidate for the Presidency. In 1952, and again in '56, he won everything but the South. The Solid South had returned to the Democratic fold. In their near century-old antipathy toward the Republican Party, they would even vote against America 's most popular war hero, ever.
1960, though, was another matter. Though the Electoral College vote would be decisive, the popular election was extremely close. Before the Democratic Convention, Alabama and Mississippi had placed slates of unpledged electors on the ballot, more as bargaining chips than as serious challenges to the party. They had hoped to influence the party's choice of nominee, or its platform. Neither ploy worked, and the party adopted platform planks in support of civil rights and voting rights. That alienated southern delegates, as had the 1948 platform planks, and in the end the unpledged electors voted not for Kennedy, but for Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd. Had the election actually been in doubt, they would likely have voted for Kennedy, but his substantial Electoral College lead gave them the luxury of being able to lodge a portentous protest.
The Civil Rights Act
Which brings us at last to what became, in modern parlance, the game changer—the election of 1964. Civil rights had nearly cost Democrats the election in 1948. It had given them a stern warning in 1960. It still didn't cost them the '64 election, but it would render Presidential elections all but unattainable for the Democratic Party for at least the next four decades. In June of 1963, John Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act to Congress. It was designed to eliminate race discrimination in many parts of American life. At the time Kennedy was assassinated in November, the bill was effectively stalled in the House of Representatives. The new President, Lyndon Johnson, a veteran of a dozen years each in the House and the Senate, employed all his legislative skill to ultimately gain passage of the act, and signed it into law on July 2nd, He is said to have remarked, "We have lost the South for a generation." He was overly optimistic; it was for two generations—or more.
Johnson's strength in the '64 election was phenomenal, and in some ways hard to explain. His opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, won only his home state and five states of the Deep South, Had the Solid South not deserted the Democratic Party for the first time in twenty-eight consecutive Presidential elections, Johnson would have won all but five of the nation's electoral votes.
Democrats had won their greatest victory since the Depression. Pundits pronounced the death of the Republican Party. Few really took note of the fulfillment of Johnson's prophecy. Democrats would not win the Solid South again. Forty-Four years have passed—twelve Presidential elections—and Democrats have never won the Solid South. They have occasionally won a few states, essentially with southern nominees, Carter and Clinton, but they have never won the block. And they will not win it in 2008. (The 2008 map reflects an aggregate of state polls, as of 10/27/2008.)
2008—The Civil Rights Legacy
However, the legacy of the Kennedy-Johnson Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act that followed it in 1965, have laid the foundation for this 2008 election, possibly the most profound in American history. This year, barring circumstances that are now almost beyond our imagining, a man of African descent will be elected to the Presidency of the United States. If Lyndon Johnson had not been willing and able to secure passage of those two pieces of civil rights legislation, we surely would not see election of a Black or mixed-race President for another generation or more. But what does this imminent election mean in terms of the greater question of race and bigotry in America ? Where are we on the long, painfully slow recovery from the scourges of slavery in which our nation was born?
A Post-Racial Era?
A couple of nights ago, I watched pundits Jon Meacham, Joe Klein, Charlie Cook and Matt Bai discussing various aspects of the current election with Charlie Rose, and the question arose of whether we are in a "post-race" era. Think about it. Five white males, inarguably of elite standing, speculating about whether we are in a post-racist era. Isn't that prima facie evidence that we are not?
I would suggest a metric by which to evaluate the question: when the racial balance in our colleges and universities is functionally equivalent to the racial mixture in our prisons, we can seriously begin to consider that we may be in a post-racist world. If by then, the Solid South has collapsed, race may no longer be our political underpinning, as it has been for the entire history of our nation. We have miles to go before we sleep in that sweet rest.
The bigotry in our national culture still runs deep and real. It is always just out of sight, just under the surface—except for those times when it erupts—as it has in the angry shouting at some McCain-Palin campaign events this year—as it sometimes does when police pump an innocent, unarmed Black man full of bullets—as it sometimes does when a movie star, or a talk show host engages in discourse that is offensive to nearly all Americans.
And on election nights our bigotry still colors red that block of southern states. Of course the bigotry is just as evident in many precincts and counties throughout the nation, even in the bluest of blue states. In those places, though, we don't see it plotted on TV maps, dramatically displaying our darker side.
On that Charlie Rose show—the one with the five white guys—Joe Klein did express one hope-filled observation: that many of the youth of our nation may already be living in a post-racist world. That certainly isn't universally true, but I think there is truth in it. At least many of them are more intolerant of intolerance than were their parents. Forty years ago, we saw many of our nation's youth fighting for the civil rights of others, but we still haven't fully realized the promise of their action. Perhaps we're there again. Perhaps the youth of our nation are again carrying a bright lamp of justice. Perhaps we'll see more by its light, this time around.
The maps on this page are adaptations of public domain illustrations from the Wikimedia Commons.