Before 1948, Southern Democrats largely believed that the party was the defender of their way of life, which was based on an ideology of states' rights and traditional values. They had generally warned northern liberal reformers, Republicans, and civil rights activists to stay out under the broad label of "outside agitators." The adoption go the civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic National Convention and President Harry S. Truman's integration of the military with Executive Order 9981 created a split between northern and southern Democrats.
This pair of civil rights actions began the prices of not only moving many southern Democrats to the Republican party, but also in destroying the national New Deal liberal consensus. The first concrete illustration of the split in the Democratic party came with the establishment of the States' Rights Democratic party to scare the larger Democratic party into dropping its civil rights plans. When that failed, the Dixiecrats ran Strom Thurmond against Truman and Dewey in the Presidential race, winning in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Historian Kari Frederickson argues that Thurmond, and possibly other New Deal Democrats from the South, favored some reforms that would benefit blacks, but found Truman's intention to use Federal power to enact civil rights reforms insulting. Thurmond ran from U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1954, but switched to the GOP in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater. The creation of the Dixiecrats and politicians switching parties seemed to give permission to southern voters to consider alternatives to the Democratic party. As southerners left, the Democrats became even more liberal.
Eisenhower's use of Federal troops to assure the safety of African American students at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, temporarily prevented southern Democrats from switching to the GOP during the 1950s. Despite this, President John F. Kennedy's slow acceptance of the Civil Rights Movement, followed by Lyndon Baines Johnson's full-throated support, changed the Democratic party in the South. The key moments were Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Goldwater presidential campaign that year. Johnson understood the potential for domestic political consequences, reputedly saying after the signing of the Civil Rights Act that he had just delivered the South to the Republicans for a generation.
A hard core of southern Democrats resisted civil rights changes from the Brown decision in 1954 through the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus, and George Wallace were the visible spearheads, relying on populist appeals to less-educated, blue-collar voters who liked Democrats' economic policies, but opposed desegregation. If Johnson's civil rights legislation gave southern Democrats a policy dispute with their national party, Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign seemed to offer an alternative.
Not only did segregation opponents like Strom Thurmond begin to switch parties in 1964 to lend their support to Goldwater, but Earl and Merle Black argue that southern Democrats supported Goldwater at the polls due to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act and his support for states' rights. This trend continued in 1968 and 1972 due to the Nixon Campaign's "Southern Strategy," which used veiled appeals based on race to woo southern voters. The Black brothers argue that as southern voters became comfortable voting for Republican presidential candidates, it made it easier for them to vote for GOP candidates in Congressional and state elections. This occurred despite Republican support for the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Mary and Thomas Edsall also not the trend of southern Democrats rallying to the GOP as the national Democratic party became increasingly associated with not just legal equality for African Americans, but with Affirmative Action and IRS threats to tax private schools created to preserve segregation in education. Images of violence, chaos, rising crime rates, and riots became associated with Democratic politics in the southern mind, allowing Nixon and other Republicans to use the language of law and order as code for racial issues, drawing even more Democrats, North and South, to vote for Republican candidates.
The issue of race, or at least the southern incarnation of the race issue, does not wholly account for the shift of southerners from the Democratic party to the GOP. Earle and Merle Black are joined by Joseph Crespino, Matthew Lassiter, Kevin Kruse, and Thomas Segrue, in this discussion. They argue that the rise of the suburbs played an important role in changing the allegiances of southern Democrats, just as they changed the rest of the nation. Demographic changes in the South were an important part of this process. Black voters, who supported the changes in the Democratic party's focus on civil rights, left the South in high numbers, with five million African Americans moving North and West between 1940 and 1970. The growth of industry and military bases in the South drew northerners to relocate to the South, further boosting the GOP, which did best in the fastest growing cities. In the 1952, 1956, and 1960 elections, Virginia, Florida, and Georgia voted for Republican candidates. Eisenhower was the second President in U.S. history to get a plurality of southern votes. Many of the South's new residents were already Republicans, explaining their voting patterns in those elections.
The politics and demographics of the suburbs reinforced segregation and resistance to forced change. FHA loans and VA loans were only available for segregated neighborhoods. Economic factors based on low taxes and avoidance of crime typical of suburban life also led to a southern switch to the GOP according to Lassiter and Kruse. By 1970, according to Lassiter, southerners preferred moderate language and candidates who used seemingly moderate language, as can be seen by centrist-Democratic candidates who defeated race-baiting Republicans. Rather than massive resistance, Southerners opted to oppose busing as unfair because they had bough houses near good schools on purpose. They opposed busing as southern suburbanites, not as southern racists. Nixon commercials in the South during the 1968 election played on this theme, emphasizing crime, busing, and the Supreme Court. All were issues coded as focusing on race since 1954, but also coding to issues most important to suburbanites in both the North and the South.