Column: The legacy of the Southern strategy |

Column: The legacy of the Southern strategy

Mitch Mulhall
column sig
Mitch Mulhall

“Southern change gonna come at last

Now your crosses are burning fast.”

— Neil Young

The Glenwood Springs of my youth had to be one of the most racially homogeneous places in America. Few towns were so well insulated from the tensions of the ’60s and ’70s, which makes me no less credible on the subject of race than, well, anyone else who grew up here. Back then, I had a poster of a red-eyed Richard Nixon smartly pinching a hand-rolled doobie between thumb and forefinger. The caption said, “Let me make things perfectly clear.” I’ll get back to hippie lettuce momentarily, but first, a trip down memory lane.

Almost everyone knows Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and for decades after his assassination — despite the long and tortuous history of black suffrage — most freed slaves and their lineage supported Republicans as fervently as they now support Democrats. So how did the “racist” label get stuck on Republicans?

One answer to this question involves the constitutional concept of “concurrent powers” of states — the authority states have to make laws about matters outside the “enumerated powers” of Congress. There are 16 enumerated powers, and the amendments expand the scope a bit. Certainly the federal government can and has created laws outside this scope, but concurrent powers give states latitude to modify or contravene.

In post-Civil War America, the Republican Party was the party of emancipation, and this polarized the former Confederate states. Not all Southerners became Democrats of course, but Southern Republicans were about as common as August snow. In the 1940s, this polarity briefly gave rise to a third party, the “Dixiecrats,” and while the Dixiecrats ended up in the dustbin of political history, the name survives as an accurate description of Southern voting proclivities. For similar reasons, the term “solid South” emerged, and both terms connoted Jim Crow, segregation and other injustices that kept slavery’s legacy alive.

Change was slow. In 1948, Harry Truman signed executive orders 9980 and 9981. Nothing better illustrates the languid rate of social and cultural change than Truman’s military desegregation orders.

A century after emancipation, substantive change finally began. Between 1964 and 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed three civil rights bills: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. To get these bills to his desk, Johnson, a Texas Democrat not nearly as racially enlightened as the civil rights laws he signed, relied heavily on congressional Republicans. The solid South vehemently opposed federal civil rights laws, and the opposition ran straight down the spine of abject racism, even across the Mason-Dixon line: The only northern Democrat to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was Robert Byrd, a former exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in West Virginia.

Johnson’s Republican opponent In the ’64 presidential election was Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was an enigmatic figure, at once skeptical of federal overreach and both a member of the Arizona NAACP and a quiet supporter of integration in Phoenix schools. Goldwater’s view that federal civil rights laws were an intrusion on states’ concurrent powers developed broad appeal among Southern Democrats, including then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

If concurrent powers meant federal civil rights laws were not the final word, segregation and other Southern racial policies weren’t dead. Goldwater carried his home state of Arizona and the Deep South, from Louisiana to South Carolina less Florida, and in so doing stumbled into a way to take the solid South away from Democrats.

In the run-up to the ’68 race, Johnson declined re-election, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated. This pitted Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon. George Wallace ran independent.

Nixon was no Wallace. While Republicans were interested in duplicating Goldwater’s Southern success and many opposed busing, Nixon wouldn’t touch Wallace’s broader agenda, no matter how it resonated among Southern voters.

Robert Shelton campaigned for Wallace, and Asa Carter wrote his speeches. Wallace himself had stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus to block two black students from registering. Nixon rightly concluded from the ’64 race that Wallace’s willingness to put real segregationist meat on concurrent powers’ bones held little national appeal.

Even though Wallace was a lifelong Democrat until his independent presidential bid and carried all of Goldwater’s deep Southern states except South Carolina, Nixon is nevertheless viewed as the first presidential candidate to marshal the “Southern strategy” — using concurrent powers, or states’ rights, to appeal to Southern voters — and now post-Nixon Republican presidential candidates, as well as Republicans generally, are by inference racist.

Was it myopic of Republicans to sacrifice the concept of concurrent powers at the electoral altar? Perhaps. The Southern strategy yoked concurrent powers with a persistent racial tension that, by the looks of it, isn’t going away.

It is no small irony, then, that Colorado exercised states’ rights to legalize marijuana, countermanding the federal Controlled Substances Act. In so doing, Amendment 64 supporters share more than common constitution with Neil Young’s “Southern Man.”

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.

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