The Big Switch That Wasn’t: The Dixiecrats, Race and 1964
It’s known as “The Big Switch.” A historical moment when Southern Democrat politicians converted to Republicanism and refashioned the G.O.P. into a racist political party (according to their opponents).
In an heated Twitter exchange between Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez (D-NY) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), this “big switch” was the grist of the Millennial Democrat’s argument.
The only problem? It’s not true.
But first a little historical context.
The general narrative of this “switch” is capsulized in a 2017 History.com article. Once again, a Millennial writer documented how the Democratic Party–known for its historic racism–split in 1948 after Harry S. Truman (D-MO) first “introduced a pro-civil rights platform” into the Democratic Party. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) and a faction of Southern Democrats, consequently, bolted from Democrats to create the “States Rights” (Dixiecrat) party. The author then stated how Dixiecrats eventually converted to Republicanism–along with Thurmond–in 1964. Later, Nixon’s “southern strategy” and Reagan’s conservatism moved the Democratic “blue” South to become a firm “red” Republican in the 1970s and 1980s.
Consequently, Democrats routinely finger contemporary Republicans as “racists,” pointing to occasional neo-Nazi politicians (David Duke, a one-term Louisiana state legislator), obscure racist organizations (Patriot Front) and Confederate flag-waving MAGA types. In fact, just wearing MAGA clothing is considered “racist” by many individuals on the left.
It’s a strong and divisive narrative…but what’s the TRUTH?
First of all, the “Dixiecrats,” under Strom Thurmond in 1948), did leave the Democratic Party…but not for racial reasons.
The Truman Administration–following sixteen years of Franklin D. Roosevelt–further desired to federalize and centralize government. The Southern Thurmond “Dixiecrats” believed in traditional “states’ rights” and segregation. The Northern and Western Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s was more “progressive” politically. President Roosevelt’s fascination with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and fascist government programs in Europe guided many of his domestic policies.
Consequently, the 1948 Truman-Democratic platform reflected more centralized and socialist government, thus angering and distancing Southern libertarians. That’s what really split the Democratic Party in 1948. In fact, in a political platform that boasted 4,256 words only 106 (2.4%) were devoted to civil rights (for the black or anyone else). Even more surprisingly was how the party of slavery, segregation, Ku Klux Klan and Confederate secession was quick to pat itself on the back in 1948. In their summary on civil rights the Democratic Party proudly claimed it alone was “responsible for the great civil rights gains” and committed to “continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination.”
However, such 1940s political posturing was contradicted by a Jim Crow Democratic South that still lynched blacks, refused school, hotel, restaurant, transportation and restroom facilities to “coloreds” and rigged voting procedures to suppress the black ballot. Therefore, it’s hard to believe “great gains” were actually made by Democrats (as it was the GOP that continually battled for racial civil rights from its inception). The Democrat Harry Truman was allegedly an inactive participant in the Missouri KKK, and biographers often noted his latent racism against blacks, Jews, Chinese and Japanese throughout his life. Meanwhile the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated a KKK member to the Supreme Court (Hugo Black), put Japanese-Americans into detention camps and refused to welcome black Olympians—including the famed Jesse Owens—to the White House.
Nevertheless, the Dixiecrat exodus was more about progressive, fascist, socialism than segregation and black civil rights. In the end, despite predictions of a Thomas Dewey victory, the Dixiecrat exodus produced little gain. Truman won the 1948 presidency in a landslide electoral college vote while the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond mustered an inconsequential 2.4% of the popular vote.
Second, the Dixiecrats did NOT convert to Republicanism in 1964 (after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act) as many contemporary historians and journalists suggest.
In fact, most of these racist libertarians returned to the Democratic Party after 1948 and became a significant voting block against civil rights and desegregation throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. According to one historical analysis, of the 1500+ racist “Dixiecrats” only Strom Thurmond and about a dozen others left the Democratic Party for the GOP (less than 1%). Furthermore, Thurmond didn’t switch parties until 16 years after Truman forced his hand to create his “Dixiecrat” party.
Third, Southern whites (the people, not the politicians) did vote more REPUBLICAN in post-1965 elections, but not for racial reasons.
Again, the Democratic Party was moving left, toward socialism, nonreligious/atheism and adopting liberal planks on abortion, women and gay rights. The Bible Belt South in the 1970s and 1980s became less racist as de-segregation and civil rights laws were enforced. Consequently, immigration to southern cities (Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Charlotte) by northern and western GOP conservatives rearranged the voting demographic. Southerners are more conservative and that’s why dozens of Democrats switched parties. Did you know notable Republicans Trent Lott, Mike Pence, William Bennett and Rick Perry were all previously Democrat? It’s true. And race was not the reason they switched affiliations…it was due to liberal/socialist policies.
Finally, the Republican Party and its leaders have consistently denounced and resisted the “alt right” ultra-conservative racist organizations.
It’s why these racists formed their own political party in 2009 (The American Freedom Party). Republicans, historically, have always championed civil rights for the black and all ethnicities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed thanks to widespread Republican support (who had proposed, ironically similar legislation in the Eisenhower administration). All Southern Democrats (including those Dixiecrats) voted against it. Oh, and David Duke? He only identified as Republican when politically expedient. Otherwise, he’s been in the Democrat, Populist or Reformed camp.
Ultimately Strom Thurmond isn’t the best example, but rather Robert C. Byrd (D-WV).
Byrd spent 62 years in public office. He served for over half a century at the national level, as a Representative and, later, a powerful Senator. The senior senator died in office (2010) at the ripe age of 92. Hillary Clinton called Byrd a “friend and mentor.” Barack Obama noted how “the arc of his life bent toward justice.” The press gave Byrd a surprisingly, blessed pass and ignored his racism.
That’s because Robert Byrd proved a quintessential post-WW2 Democrat. Originally a member and leader of the Ku Klux Klan in West Virginia (an affiliation he later disavowed), Byrd refused to fight in World War 2 because it meant serving alongside blacks. He routinely voted with other segregationists in the 1950s. As a senator, Byrd filibustered and voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He abstained his vote for the 1965 Voting Act. He also voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.
This same Robert Byrd then politically transformed from a known racist to a beloved mentor. How? Simple. He towed the party line…for nearly 57 years! It’s possible to argue Byrd didn’t lose his racism but rather, like most good politicians, shelved it. He enjoyed his power and position. It wasn’t the first time Byrd did what was necessary. In fact, the whole reason Byrd initially joined the KKK was for “political power.” To his credit, Byrd did leave the organization, but still it showed him to be a political opportunist. Once in national office, at least until 1967 (when being a segregationist went out of fashion), he retained his racist roots. Byrd told a reporter: “Don’t get that albatross [the KKK] around your neck. Once you’ve made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena.”
It’s all politics. And it still is, for those who really listen close. It’s why we need to flip the script. We must tell the real story of what happened in 1948 and 1964.
The Republican Party didn’t change, but rather it was the Democratic Party’s transformation (becoming more progressively left) that split their party. The South was also fundamentally transformed by civil rights legislation led by Republicans, not Democrats, in Congress. We should also note that until Democratic “Great Society” welfare policies of the Johnson administration gave black voters an economic reason to vote “blue,” Black America was a Republican voting block.
Between 1865 and 1965, Black America backed Lincoln’s “Grand Old Party” (The G.O.P.). Notable Blacks like Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jackie Robinson were all Republicans.
So the “big switch” was neither big nor a switch.
It was the Democratic party in turmoil. It was a South being forced to end segregation and other civil rights abuses. It was the result of Republicans emigrating to Southern states post-1965 because it now reflected their more conservative values.
It was also about Southern politicians recognizing the writing on the wall…and their future in it.
This wasn’t their father’s (or grandfather’s) South anymore. It was a new day. And both Nixon and Reagan took advantage of it.
 “How The ‘Party of Lincoln’ Won Over the Once Democratic South” by Becky Little, August 18, 2017: https://www.history.com/news/how-the-party-of-lincoln-won-over-the-once-democratic-south
 Read the 1948 Democratic Platform: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/1948-democratic-party-platform
 Harry S. Truman’s racism was noted by historians and biographers. See “Truman’s Racist Talk Cited by Historian” (Seattle Times, November 3, 1991: https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19911103&slug=1314805) and “The Best Kind of Bigot: Harry Truman and His Hatreds” by Eric Fettman (New York Post, July 3, 2003: https://nypost.com/2003/07/31/the-best-kind-of-bigot-harry-truman-and-his-hatreds/).
 “Why Was Jesse Owens Deprived of Presidential Recognition,” The Telegraph, May 27, 2016: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/race/how-america-snubbed-jesse-owens/
 The 1948 Presidential Election: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_United_States_presidential_election
 “The Democrats’ Lott”. The Wall Street Journal. December 23, 2002: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1040607367889016753
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