Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 92-94
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The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968. By Kari Frederickson. University of North Carolina Press, 2001 311 pp. Cloth $49.95, paper $18.95
This thoroughly researched and well-written book provides what may come to be seen as the definitive history of the 1948 Dixiecrat movement and its impact on transforming southern politics and changing America's political culture. A side account also provides the first detailed report of the events that forced African American journalist and political leader John McCray to close his influential newspaper, The Lighthouse and Informer, and to leave South Carolina.
The central figure is Strom Thurmond, the most enduring political figure of twentieth-century America, who personified and led a revolt by white conservatives against the national Democratic Party when it challenged the South's racial status quo in 1948. For Thurmond, it meant permanent repudiation of his background as a New Deal Democrat who, after his war hero election as governor of South Carolina in 1946, developed a program of reform that included more [End Page 92] spending for education of blacks, vigorous prosecution in the largest trial of lynching defendants in history, a successful effort to repeal the poll tax in his state, and the first appointment of an African American to a state position in the twentieth century.
The States' Rights Democratic Party developed in reaction to President Harry Truman's endorsement of his President's Committee on Civil Rights report, To Secure These Rights. Its recommendations included the enactment of anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation, creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), outlawing racial discrimination in employment and interstate transportation, and ending segregation in the armed forces.
The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South touches only lightly on Thurmond's slow emergence as the leader, the result both of his perception as a paternalist supporter of racial segregation that the report amounted to an attack on southern honor, and also of his political instinct that providing southern leadership in defense of segregation could propel him to victory two years later against Senator Olin D. Johnson, a New Deal Democratic loyalist. One of the ironies of this story is that Thurmond lost that Senate race in 1950, with the margin coming from the solid opposition of the emerging black vote in South Carolina in response to his new image.
Perhaps these opposition voters remembered the greatest applause line in his July 17, 1948 speech at the Dixiecrat convention in Birmingham. Although Thurmond would forever deny that he ran a racist campaign—instead insisting that he sought to protect "states' rights" and oppose centralization of government in Washington—he received his most thunderous applause that day when he shouted into a microphone, "There's not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our schools, and into our homes." (His denial is such that when the state of South Carolina erected a seventeen-foot high monument of Thurmond on the State House grounds after his ninety-seventh birthday in 1999, the engraved list of his career highlights did not include his presidential candidacy in 1948.)
The book's strength is its south-wide coverage of the protest movement and its lasting impact on regional and national politics. Frederickson concludes, "If the Dixiecrat movement failed in its 1948 attempt to defeat Truman, it in no uncertain terms began the transformation of southern politics, although the road to a two-party South was far from smooth."
Again, Thurmond symbolized that movement. After his 1950 defeat, he got elected to the Senate four years later as a write-in candidate following the unexpected death of Sen. Burnet Maybank after the Democratic primary. After ten years as a maverick Democrat who regularly denounced civil rights legislation and called for impeachment of Supreme Court justices, Thurmond in 1964 [End Page 93] switched to the Republican Party to campaign...