- Reviewed by
Scholars have debated the relative liberality of the white South in the years prior to the Civil Rights movement. In The Great Melding, Glenn Feldman continues his argument that historians of the South [End Page 374] have overstated its progressive nature and links the political realignment of the South back to Reconstruction. A sequel to The Irony of the Solid South: Democrats, Republicans, and Race, 1865–1944 (Tuscaloosa, 2013), this work primarily focuses on the period between the late New Deal and the 1952 presidential election. The “melding” of the title is actually the result of three events: melding economic and racial conservatism; melding economic conservatism to religious fundamentalism; and melding the South’s conservative classes, the landed elite and the rising industrial, capitalist class.
The argument of the book is more specific. White southerners spent seventy–five years creating a system that made apparent reforms and goodwill toward African Americans an excuse to keep out federal intervention and maintain control by wealthy white men. Feldman describes this as “Sophistic Pruning—cutting back the ugliest and most extreme parts of the tree of white supremacy and states’ rights in order to keep the same tree of elite rule and antidemocratic tendencies growing bigger, stronger, and more healthy” (5). The South was a “Status Quo Society” defined by a conservative sense that a religiously–ordained white supremacist hierarchy was natural, good, and must be preserved (35). The New Deal threatened this, thus the “First Great Melding” of racial and economic conservatism to ensure that the white masses would continue to vote for policies that favored the economic elite.
This effort worked, Feldman argues, with the result that by “1945 it would be nearly impossible to remain an economic liberal and retain a shred of credibility on the race issue” (43). Feldman contends that apparently successful liberal Alabama politicians were either sui generis exceptions, like “Big Jim” Folsom, or not actually all that successful, like Lister Hill and John Sparkman, both of whom barely held onto their seats by descending into crude race–baiting. By the end of the war, the “New Deal coalition in the Deep South was so fragile and tenuous that if the national Democratic Party did anything liberal on race to further provoke southern whites, the coalition could crack wide open. That is exactly what happened in 1948” (143). The GOP at first proved unable to capitalize on this discontent; Thomas Dewey [End Page 375] and the Republicans seemed little better than the Democrats on the crucial civil rights issue. The result was something of a civil war within the Alabama Democratic Party, over means rather than ends. Both the Democrats who remained loyal to the national party and those who bolted opposed Harry Truman’s civil rights platform. Loyalists asserted that white supremacy could best be protected the same way it always had been: within the Democratic Party. Dixiecrats believed the party too much in thrall to northerners and racial liberals to be recovered. Underneath this obvious fight was a subtler conflict over who would lead the defense of white supremacy: economic conservatives or the weakening economic liberals. “For the South’s economic reactionaries,” Feldman writes, “the turn of Truman and the national Democrats toward civil rights was a godsend” (213).
The Dixiecrats won both fights; they elected anti–Truman electors and therefore took the state from Truman, and economic conservatives successfully associated economic liberalism with racial liberalism, dooming its electoral chances. But despite these successes, Dixiecrats lost control of the party after the election; Lister Hill and the loyalists outmaneuvered them and, crucially for Alabama’s future, out–race–baited them. Ironically, the crushing of the Dixiecrats in 1950–51 set up Alabama for realignment, because in eliminating a realistic third–party option or another internal revolt, it forced white southerners to choose between an economically and racially liberal Democratic Party and the Republicans. By the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they...