Ever hear that the parties switched around the Civil Rights Era? You probably have but in case you have not the claim goes like this: although Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and the CRA and the VRA were passed by Republicans these were different Republicans because the parties switched. They say that the Dixiecrats in the Democratic Party (southern democrats who were racist) became Republicans (so the racists are now in the Republican party). To be clear, none of what I am about to say should be taken to mean the parties are stagnant. They’re not. Different groups change who they vote for overtime. African Americans used to vote for Republicans and both parties used to be ideologically mixed. See another of my articles here for a quick breakdown of the history of American political parties. This article is to refute a specific claim of change.
First, let me define the South. For the most part, I will be looking at Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. This is what is commonly referred to as the “Deep South” so I think it is fair to examine these states.
The biggest problem with the party switch myth is the clear lack of party switchers. Outside Strom Thurmond, Senator from South Carolina, and Jesse Helms, Senator from North Carolina, few politicians changed parties– even fewer did for racial reasons. Conversely, we can see plenty examples of southern Democrats who stayed as Democrats. Former KKK member and Democratic West Virginia Senator joined the Senate in 1959 and stayed until 2010. He served in a variety of Democratic Leadership positions including majority leader. John C. Stennis was the Democratic Senator from Mississippi from 1947 till 1989. He opposed the CRA and VRA and was in the Democratic leadership until he left the Senate. Hale Boggs was a Democratic Representative from Mississippi and in the Democratic Leadership till his death in 1972. John Sparkman was the Democratic Senator from Alabama from 1946 until 1979. He also opposed the VRA and CRA. Similar stories can be told for J. Lister Hill, Herman Talmadge, James Eastland and I am sure many others.
Now I want to look at the actual election maps from 1952 until 2016 (I picked 1952 for no particular reason). When you scroll through the maps below you will notice that the modern political map does not emerge in the South until 2000. The only time it goes solid red before that is during a national landslide. The closest it comes otherwise in 1964.
The final way I want to examine this myth is by looking at the percentage of the population that voted Republican in the five states mentioned above from 1900 until 2016 in Presidential elections. Something that is clear in each of these: southern states are becoming more Republican over time. Both Alabama and Georgia follow and a pretty straight path up and so does Louisiana although a bit less tight. South Carolina follows the same general pattern but is a bit more interesting. The percentage of the vote Republicans get stays low until 1952 and General Eisenhower. Here it jumps up. It does back down in 1956 but goes back up in 1960 and stays up. Mississippi is also interesting. Its pattern is made of four clusters, each either being neutral or going down but together they go up.
I think I have thoroughly refuted this myth but if you are still not convinced then I encourage you to look at the list of Senators, Representatives, Governors or anything else you can find for Southern states. This is the pattern you will notice. Until 1980 they are solidly controlled by Democrats but from 1980 until 2000 they tend to be split. Sometimes Democrats win but sometimes Republicans win. It was not until after 2000 that Southern states began to consolidate in the hands of Republicans. Alabama did not have two Republican senators at one time until 1996, Mississippi until 1988, and Louisiana until 2014. Similarly, Alabama did not have back to back Republican governors until 2011, Mississippi until 2012, and Louisiana still has not had back to back Republican governors. I think it is safe to say that this myth is busted.