Debate: Was It a Crime to Have Supported the Dixiecrat Party?

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If HNN gave an award to the historian who had made the most controversial statement of the month, Norman Ravitch undoubtedly would have to be considered a leading contender for December. Mr. Ravitch, professor of history emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, argued in a recent posting on Conservativenet -- a highly respected "daily electronic newsletter" for scholars and researchers -- that Trent Lott "has a right to remember Thurmond's Dixiecrat past. It is part of history. It is not a crime to have been supportive of it. It remains more than doubtful that the black population of America, or the rest of us, have really benefited from integration and civil rights legislation."

Ravitch's statement prompted a vigorous exchange of views, excerpted below:


I hold no particular love for Senator Lott who is a wheeling, dealing
Good Ole Boy whose leadership of the Senate GOP has not been
particularly impressive. But in the present flap about his comments
on Thurmond I have this observation.

The criticism of Lott and demand that he resign, along with the
Confederate Flag controversy in Georgia and South Carolina, all seem
to me to be a liberal attempt to apply political correctness to the
past as well as the present and future.

Lott has a right to remember Thurmond's Dixiecrat past. It is part of
history. It is not a crime to have been supportive of it. It remains
more than doubtful that the black population of America, or the rest
of us, have really benefited from integration and civil rights

As for the flag, it is a remembrance of a terrible civil war which was
the worst example of fraternal hatred in history up to that time. All
races and sides need to remember. Keeping the flag helps us to
remember. Political correctness makes us forget.

The Democrats are trying to use these issues to make the GOP the
racist party. So be it. The Democrats ruled for a long time as the
racist party.


Mr. Jensen, the editor of Conservativenet, is emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

It should be noted that Lott never endorsed segregation, and that Thurmond as governor of SC had a strong reputation for opposing the KKK and lynching. His biographers in fact credit him with ending lynching in South Carolina.


Mr. Tanenhaus is the author of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography.

I'm curious to know the historical basis for [Ravitch's belief that"It remains more than doubtful that the black population of America, or the rest of us, have really benefited from integration and civil rights legislation."] Americans--and "the rest of us"--really better off in the days of Jim Crow, poll taxes, whites-only primaries, "literacy" tests? Was Barry Goldwater mistaken to support civil rights legislation in 1957? It's worth remembering that civil rights was deemed by the likes of Acheson and JFK as a critical element of cold war policy in the 1950's and 60's, as a number of recent studies have shown in some detail.

It's quite true that Thurmond's record has been somewhat distorted. He seen in in the 1940's as a Southern progressive. But it's a mistake to depict him as a principled states-righter, and opponent of "big government." In fact he endorsed Truman in 1947 and broke with him, and the Democratic Party, only after the Civil Rights Commission issued its report. Thus did Race--or rather, racism--dominate his campaign. A good, undervalued source on the 1948 election--probably the greatest of the century--is Gary Donaldson's Truman Defeats Dewey (University Press of Kentucky, 1999).


Mr. Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History.

Conservatives have made political gains by attacking busing and affirmative action, but I never expected you all to defend Jim Crow! Perhaps Ravitch and other respondents on this list would like to explain to Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Condi Rice, and J.C. Watts that they'd really be better off sweeping up and cooking meals at the White House, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, and the State Department than making policy in such places?

As for Jensen's defense of Thurmond: I'm sure the black citizens of SC were extremely grateful to the governor for ending lynching -- amid a national uproar against the practice. But he still fought to bar them from voting and from enjoying equal opportunities in employment, housing, and education until those damned outside agitators changed the law of the land.

These apologies, even defenses, of Lott's reprehensible statement(s) only underline the fact that conservatives can't be trusted to make distinctions between "political correctness" and moral responsibility.


Thurmond was the single most important leader in the South in bringing salaries of black teachers up to the white averages. He also was a vigorous opponent of lynching and the KKK. The question of black voting and housing & employment was not on the table in 1948--Michael is thinking about episodes a decade later.


Mr. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.

How sad Norman Ravitch is willing to accept on behalf of the Republican Party the label "racist," an epithet otherwise banned from this venue. Better he should go back to reading National Review, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal or listening to the advice of the Family Research Council, the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism and Jack Kemp -- all of whom seem to think that President Bush wouldn't want the nation to believe that behind the face of an elephant is a dixiecrat jackass.


Ms. Thernstrom is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, a commissioner on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Four Republican Appointees on US Commission on Civil Rights issue statement deploring Senator Lott's recent comments:

As Republican appointees to the United States Commission on Civil
Rights, we deplore Senator Trent Lott's December 5, 2002 statement
that if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 "we wouldn't
have had all these problems over all these years."

The central issue on which Thurmond ran was support for racial
segregation. Senator Lott thus lends credibility to the view that such
civil rights advances as President Truman's executive order mandating
an end to racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces, the Supreme
Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Acts
of 1957 and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were grave
mistakes. Certainly, in 1948, Strom Thurmond opposed all of them.

This is a particularly shameful remark coming from a leader of the
Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and the party that
supported all of these essential steps forward far more vigorously
than did the Democratic Party, which at the time was the home of
congressional southerners committed to white supremacy.

The civil rights era was a shining moment in American history. We
believe Senator Lott agrees, and invite him to join us in celebrating
the revolutionary change in the status of African Americans that
flowed from a movement in which blacks and whites joined hands to make
a better America.

Abigail Thernstrom
Jennifer C. Braceras
Peter N. Kirsanow
Russell G. Redenbaugh
Commissioners, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights



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More Comments:

Tom Kellum - 12/20/2002

Well said, Mr. Luker. But don't hold your breath. The crowd your'e talking about is too mean-spirited and too far gone, to THINK clearly, much less admit wrongdoing. Well, they do occasionally make an exception to the jack-booted style they normally favor; like when they organize riots to intimidate vote counters. Also, their favorite anti-rights-of-anyone-except rich white, property-owning males: Mr. Bill Rehnquist, who was thoughtful enough to not wear his robe whenever he was doing his part to intimidate minority voters in Phoenix.

Fine Christians, all. Even the Chickenhawks are fine Christians, for the most part.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/18/2002

Dr. Ravitch,
Your recommendation follows the fashion of some African Americans embracing the n word or some gays embracing the f word, etc. Yet, the strategy in those examples doesn't wholly work. It is still offensive when outsiders use those words to characterize the other. I don't think you can take the sting out of being called a "racist" any more than you can deny Lott's long history of racial insensitivity.
Moreover, your own code words here -- "blackmail," "the thugs in the black caucus or the Democrat Party" etc -- indicate that you choose to ignore the overwhelming counsel of authoritative voices on the right who have insisted that the Republican Party simply must affirm the deconstruction of Jim Crow. I'd like for you to tell me about the "disordered lives" of Secretary Powell or Thomas Sowell or Condi Rice. You do owe "blacks" something. You owe them an apology.

Norman Ravitch - 12/18/2002

Senator Lott is a victim of blackmail by black and liberal politicians. Unfortunately as we learned during Joe McCarthy's day, it is very hard to prove you are not a Communist or a racist. Lott has made things worse by apologizing and trying to have a love feast with his detractors. The only way to counter this blackmail of conservatives -- and make no mistake, the charge of racism will be used against most conservatives -- the only solution is to say: "OK, I am a racist in that I will not knuckle under to the thugs in the black caucus or the Democrat Party. I owe the blacks nothing. They owe America some decent concern for common bourgeois values in their disordered lives. I will not allow myself to be victimized by the racist label; I shall embrace it and thereby draw its fangs."

This is what Lott should have done, but it is too late.

Steve Lowe - 12/17/2002

As far as black voting not being on the table in 1948, does Richard Jensen not remember or know of Smith v. Allwright or the cases that immediately followed in South Carolina under governors Johnston and Thurmond. Olin Johnston called a special session of the state legislature in 1944 to remove all traces of reference to the white primary in SC so that white Democrats could "maintain white supremacy" by making the Democratic Party a private club.

As far as black teacher salaries go, that too required a federal court case that ultimately ended with a consent decree in Charleston. The issue of equal salaries was important before, during, and after Thurmond's governorship and to my knowledge neither he nor the state ever filed an amicus brief in favor of raising teacher salaries for blacks.

And finally, there was an excellent piece on MSNBC.com today pointing out that, despite token votes for legislation in favor of continuing the Civil Rights Act and the MLK holiday, Thurmond has never publicly repudiated his segregationist past.