How the South became Republican: It’s About Race – An Interview with John Egerton 

by Heather Gray
August 5, 2017
Justice Initiative International

John Egerton

This article is about the views of the late John Egerton, who I interviewed in 2004. At the end of the interview, transcribed below, he challenges the Democrats to fight back, which is, of course, relevant to today as well. In his books, Egerton writes about resistance in the South on the part of both blacks and whites.  Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Egerton ultimately lived in Nashville and prior to the interview with him in 2004, I would often call him for discussions on southern culture and politics. He told me that if anyone is to understand the South there are three essential books that must be read and they are: Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” published in 1945; Lillian Smith’s “Killers of the Dream” published in 1949; and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” published in 1937. At his request and demand, I read them all. Egerton was pleased and we continued with our phone dialogue off and on for quite a few years.

Understanding the South

Given the present American political scene and given that so much of it is an expression of southern politics and sentiments now in the national realm (i.e. Jeff Sessions, etc.), it appears that understanding the South is essential. There are many southern writers who for years have acknowledged that the rest of the Untied States is becoming like the “south writ large”. Briefly, that means the following: virtually no labor rights; very conservative in the religious realm and espousing evangelical religions; very hierarchical politically and socially; intolerant; absolutely no deviance from a capitalist mindset; efforts to diminish individual constitutional rights; placing constraints on voting rights; exceptionally racist and white supremacist. The above is but a brief summary – there is more.

But importantly there is a whole other side to this story and it is about both blacks and whites southerners fighting back – often together – against these inhumane attitudes and policies in the South that has also led to huge successful outcomes both during and after the Civil War and during Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century. As mentioned, John Egerton writes about that resistance but in this interview we are focusing primarily on how and why the South become Republican.

About John Egerton

Egerton contributed to the book Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent (2004);  was winner of the Lillian Smith Award in 1984 for Generations: An American Family. Other books by Egerton include The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America and Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

In addition to all of the above, “Egerton was one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, which established the John Egerton Prize in 2007 to recognize artists, writers, scholars and others, including artisans and farmers, whose work in the American South addresses issues of race, class, gender, and social and environmental justice, through the lens of food” (University of Kentucky)

Egerton died in 2013 at the age of 78. Below are brief comments from the Washington Post about him and his work:

After several other books, including “Generations” (1983), an award-winning oral history of the long-lived Ledford clan of Kentucky, Mr. Egerton published “Speak Now Against the Day.” Taking his title from a line by William Faulkner, Mr. Egerton portrayed the lives of Southern advocates of racial understanding in the decades before the civil rights movement gained prominence.

“His book is a stunning achievement,” historian Charles B. Dew wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “a sprawling, engrossing, deeply moving account of those Southerners, black and white, who raised their voices to challenge the South’s racial mores during the years from 1932 to 1954 when the brackish currents of Jim Crow were running at flood tide.”

“From the smouldering ashes of the Dixiecrat defeat in 1948,” Mr. Egerton wrote, “a handful of reactionaries had fanned the sparks into a flaming new rebellion, one more lost cause to die for – the same cause of racial and regional chauvinism that had rallied their ancestors.”

Scholars have ranked “Speak Now Against the Day” alongside such classic studies of Southern history as W.J. Cash’s “The Mind of the South,” C. Vann Woodward’s “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” and Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters.” The book won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for its treatment of the struggles of the poor and underprivileged.

Mr. Egerton showed how the slow progress toward racial reconciliation was beaten back by the “Dixiecrat” revolt of 1948, when South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond made an unsuccessful but noisily influential bid for president as an avowed segregationist.
(Washington Post)

Interview with John Egerton in 2004

In the interview transcribed below, reference was made to the fact that the South had shifted from being the conservative Democratic stronghold to a Republican base and invariably southern politicians bring the baggage of excessively conservative social and greedy irresponsible economic policies into the Republican fold. Interestingly, it was the Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential elections in 1860 and 1864 and the Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s election to the White House a century later in 1964 that rallied the Southern politicians to enforce their conservative and segregationist stronghold.

Race has always been at the core of Southern politics and the South has always closed ranks against any efforts for equality. This, in spite of the fact that it was a “white” Democratic southern politician, Lyndon Johnson, who passed the most important civil rights legislation in the country’s history.

Gray: John, the South has now shifted from a Democratic stronghold to that of being Republican. I want to ask you how that happened and do to that let’s go back to the time of the Civil War.

In essence, the Civil War was fought by (the majority of the) people in the South who wanted to retain the right to conduct the “social contract” on their own terms. They wanted to have slavery, to keep it, and to be the sole judge of how it should be done…. They were in opposition to the federal government which, at that time of the Civil War, was in the hands of (Republican) president Abraham Lincoln. The (presidential) campaign of 1860 was fought over this issue – the right to extend slavery to the western territories. Compromises had been attempted in the 1850’s and had failed and so we fought this horrible war. So horrible now that it’s difficult to even look at figures of those who died and the civilian losses that were sustained…We had a Civil War here in which tens of hundreds of thousands of people died, from the tip of Florida to the tip of Maine. The Union won. That should have settled for all time the question of whether “inequality” could be legislated separately by the States.

So having lost that war, the South went through a period of reconstruction in which the federal government tried to bring the fruits of citizenship to the newly freed slave population. (Note: The federal government sent federal troops into the South to implement the reconstruction program). (There was) a sudden end of that (reconstruction) period in 1877. In order to bring closure to the tightly fought and bitterly contested election of 1876, in which a Democrat and a Republican came to a virtual tie (does this sound familiar?) a resolution got done in a back room.

There where certain southerners in Congress who were going to have the deciding vote in who was going to win that election and made the compromise that they would support the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, if they could get their governments back. If they could end the federal reconstruction… That “Compromise of 1877” marked the beginning of a conflict that goes on to this day because the Southerners got the federal government to get off their backs so they could go on and create a new form of slavery called “segregation” – so called “separate but equal” that was always separate but never equal.

Through the first half of the 20th century, southern Democrats were all segregationists and all white, all male with very few exceptions. There were a few Blacks who got elected to Congress from the South up until about 1904 following reconstruction – but by 1904 segregation was the law of the land in the South. And the north was willing to look the other way and let that happen.

There were no Republicans in the South the first half of the 20th century…save for the handful – more black than white – who had been Republicans in opposition to the South’s succession against the nation. And those so-called Lincoln Republicans – black and white – were the only Republicans in the entire South up until (later in the century).

Storm Thurmond played a critical role didn’t he? Tell us about his run for president in 1948.

Egerton: Yes. Well, here’s this guy (Strom Thurmond) from South Carolina. Like so many other southern politicians at that time, he was a Democrat and a segregationist. (Note: Thurmond was the governor of South Carolina at the time and ultimately a U.S. Senator).

Following WWII, there was the beginning of a drive for equality for black citizens. Blacks had fought in two world wars and could not be considered full fledged citizens…. Not just in the South, but in other parts (of the country) as well. Their rebellion against that was beginning to come to a head in the late 1940’s and in to the 1950’s. The 1948 election was a time that (Democratic President) Harry Truman decided to run for a full term, having succeeded (Democratic president) Franklin Roosevelt (who died in the 1945). (Note: Truman was Roosevelt’s vice president.) Along comes Strom Thurmond, and he and others bolted from the Democratic Party when Truman was nominated and tried to form the “Dixiecrat Party” to pull all the southern white segregationists together in a party that would be for all time against any equality for Blacks. (Note: Southern Democrats opposed, among others, Truman’s integration of the armed forces and his embrace of policies to protect minority rights in employment.)

Truman won the election in 1948 and yet his victory was the fireball in the night for those southern diehards. The ones who had seniority in Congress and members of the Senate and House were in open revolt against Harry Truman and the Democratic Party. That was the beginning of the transformation in the South from a Democratic Party base to a Republican base. And most of them changed not by changing parties – they remained Democrats for a long, long time-but they changed simply by showing their true colors. They were segregationists and they would go to the mat to keep the South that way.

The South was in such terrible shape at that period of time. It had come out of the Civil War just whipped down ..devastated…a lot of civilians died… people were homeless… poverty was everywhere. And then came this period of segregation where the south was trying to maintain this mirage, this subterfuge that we would have “separate but equal” facilities where, for example, we would have two schools. Whites would have one, but Blacks would have another, but they would be equal. That was the argument. But we didn’t have the resources to have one school system that was equal to the rest of the country, let alone two. So we went through this charade for decades in which not only the black schools but the white schools, as well, were way below par and not competitive with the rest of the country. The South just kept pulling further and further behind the rest of the country, all for the sake of maintaining segregation.

Gray: Let’s move forward to Lyndon Johnson’s run for president in 1964 and the darling of the conservatives, Barry Goldwater, as the 64 Republican candidate that was also critical to changing the South. Johnson had a decisive win, however.

Egerton: Okay! The 1948 election, as we said a minute ago, was a crucial turning point when Truman came in and a few more years later we go through Brown v Board of Education and the beginning of school desegregation…. Race relations was all of a sudden in the forefront of domestic policy in the entire country, not just in the south. This was in the period when opposition to desegregation, opposition to Brown v Board, was really building in the South.

So you come to 1963 and John Kennedy’s been assassinated and Lyndon Johnson-a deep dyed southern Democrat from the hill country of Texas, a former member of the House of Representatives, then of the (U.S.) Senate and then Vice President under Kennedy-became president by virtue of assassination.

Now, Lyndon Johnson had many flaws. There’s plenty of documentation of that fact in the wonderful biographies that have been written about Johnson. But so far none of the those biographers have really doubted the total conviction that Johnson had, once be became President, to end for all time the…practice of segregation and white supremacy – not just in the South but all over the country. It was sanctioned by law in the South, but Johnson knew from his own experience that these conditions – the social conditions – were common in all parts of the country. The Black population of the United States was harnessed against progress, was kept from advancing by law and by the customs and culture that surrounded them all the way into the 1960’s and beyond there. So Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress two historic civil rights bills (Note: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965).

When he (successfully passed these Civil Rights Acts) he said to his aid, Bill Moyers, that I may have turned the South over to the Republican Party for the next generation. I don’t think he could possibly have known just how prophetic that statement was.

Indeed, it was in 1964 that Strom Thurmond finally switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party that began this avalanche of “coming out” parties where all these Democrats, who were really closet Republicans, came out of the closet to present themselves as what they truly were, which was super conservative and still segregationists….

Gray: Talking about contemporary politics now and George Bush, one of the things you’ve said in your article was that if the Confederate states had won the Civil War, Bush’s policies would be exactly what you would expect from a “Confederate” president.

Egerton: George W. Bush is the first Republican to be elected to the White House from the South in the history of the United States. In essence, when we finally elected a Republican President from the South, we might expect him to have an administration that operated pretty much the way you might suppose the Confederacy would have operated had it been running the country, had it won the Civil War and controlled the United States in 1865.

Gray: Why do you say that?

Egerton: Well, I’m not saying (Bush’s presidency operates) in a directly racist way that would have been true in 1865 – but I’m saying it because of the philosophy of elitism, inequality – that certain people had advantages over other people – and carving those into the pillars of the law. This is part and parcel of the Republican Party of today. It is that philosophy of “inequality of privilege” that the Republicans cotton to and claim.

Gray: The Democrats have, since the Civil War, been attempting to bend over backwards to accommodate the interests and concerns of the conservative southern Democrats that has resulted in them diluting their (social and economic) policy agenda. And another thing you’ve said is that with Southern politicians now showing their true colors by becoming Republicans, the Democrats should just say good riddance.

Egerton: Well, I think that people in the South (both white and black) who are Democrats need to say out loud that I believe in liberal government. Now the Democrats have not been pristine-they also have elitist interests. But it’s the liberal policies (of the Democrats) that made this country what it was, and not (the philosophy) of a handful getting an advantage over the whole of the population… It was Democrats who gave us social security (for example)….I think that Southern democrats should say this is an integrated party. We’re working for the betterment and advancement of the entire population of the South in the framework of the nation…The ones who don’t want to do that and (instead) want to placate those conservatives and make them think we’re not too liberal. I think that’s wrong headed. That’s not the right way to go. Democrats need to fight back.

Note: The transcribed interview was first published on Counterpunch in December 2004.

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