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  • Race and Subregional Persistence in a Changing South
  • Seth C. MCKee (bio)

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Race, more than any other factor, structured the politics of the American South, whether it was the regional solidarity under the Democratic label in blocking federal intervention on racial rights or the more chaotic factional nature of state and local politics. Bobby Simmons writes his convictions on his forehead in zinc oxide on the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 25, 1965, © Matt Heron/Take Stock/The Image Works. Used with permission.

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Although other issues structure the party system in the southern United States, the dividing line of race, more than any other factor, accounts for the relative electoral strength of the Democratic and Republican parties. After the end of Reconstruction (circa 1877), the southern Democratic Party maintained the racial status quo through massive black disfranchisement. But a twist of fate in the 1964 presidential election led African Americans to embrace the party that historically had shunned them, whereas the party that had championed Emancipation became the refuge for the majority of southern whites. Highlighting the common subregional distinction between the Deep and Peripheral/Rim South allows us to trace the evolution of electoral politics in the American South from post–World War II to the present. This history of political change is chronicled with demographic and electoral data that serve to demonstrate the remarkable partisan transformation of two-party competition in these southern subregions. Whereas the Deep South was once the most Democratic section of the Solid South, it has now become the most Republican because of its extraordinarily racially polarized political behavior. The vast majority of Deep South whites have aligned with the Grand Old Party (gop), while a near-consensus share of their African American counterparts support a smaller Democratic opposition.

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school at the University of Texas, a distinguished scholar of southern politics gave a presentation on his latest book. I made certain that I would have an opportunity to meet with him and drew the assignment of driving this gentleman back to the airport. During our lively conversation about southern culture, he said to me, "I would never live in states [x],[y], and [z]." These states were all part of the Deep South, which is comprised of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Experts on the American South, as well as many who have simply lived in the region, are aware of the cultural variation between the aforementioned states and what we call the Peripheral or Rim South, including Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Distinguishing between the South's two major subregions, the Deep and Peripheral South, is a matter of continuing political relevance. To be sure, there are various definitions of what constitutes the American South and how states subsumed under a given definition of the South differ or exhibit similarities. For instance, there are plausible justifications for adding Kentucky and Oklahoma to a definition of the South, especially based on the political culture and partisan evolution of these states. This study, however, excludes them and stays true to V. O. Key's classic definition of the South as the eleven states that seceded from the Union to form the short-lived Confederacy. It further holds true to the aforementioned definition of southern subregions adopted by Key in 1949.1

In the first chapter of Southern Politics in State and Nation, the so-called "Bible of [End Page 135] Southern Politics," Key penned his most-quoted statement and the overriding thesis of the region's political modus operandi:

In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro. It is at times interpreted as a politics of cotton, as a politics of free trade, as a politics of agrarian poverty, or as a politics of planter and plutocrat. Although such interpretations have a superficial validity, in the last analysis the major peculiarities of southern politics go back to the Negro. Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.

Key goes...


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