The Dixiecrat Party broke the solid South’s historic allegiance to the national Democratic Party and in doing so inaugurated an unpredictable era in which white southerners grappled with a variety of vehicles designed to thwart racial progress.
The Dixiecrats were a political party organized in 1948 by disgruntled white southern Democrats dismayed over their region’s declining influence within the national Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats, more formally known as the States’ Rights Democratic Party, were committed to states’ rights and the maintenance of segregation, and opposed to federal intervention in the interest of promoting civil rights. Although the roots of the Dixiecrat revolt lay in the 1930s, the impetus for the Dixiecrat movement included President Harry Truman’s civil rights program, introduced in February 1948; the civil rights plank in the national Democratic Party’s 1948 presidential platform; and the unprecedented political mobilization by southern blacks in the immediate postwar era. The Dixiecrat movement was strongest in the “black belt,” particularly in states with large African American populations. In South Carolina, Dixiecrat strength drew from below the fall line.
When southern conservatives failed to prevent the nomination of Harry Truman at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, some six thousand participants from thirteen southern states converged on Birmingham, Alabama, on July 17, 1948, to hold their own convention. Participants from South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi made up the majority of those in attendance. Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi were nominated as the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the States’ Rights Democrats. Their goal was to win the 127 electoral college votes of the southern states. This would prevent either Republican Party nominee Thomas Dewey or Harry Truman from winning the 266 electoral votes necessary for election, thus throwing the contest into the House of Representatives, where the South would hold eleven of the forty-eight votes. In the House election it was believed that southern Democrats would be able to deadlock the election until either party had agreed to drop its own civil rights plank.
The Dixiecrats’ platform was limited and negative. They opposed federal anti-lynching and anti-poll-tax legislation and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (which Dixiecrats claimed would impose racial hiring quotas on employers), and were pledged to uphold segregation and white supremacy. The Dixiecrats argued that such legislation infringed on the rights of the states as set forth in the Constitution. Their electoral success depended on their ability to convince the individual states to pledge their Democratic Party electors to the States’ Rights candidates.
To the surprise of most Americans, Truman was elected president on November 2, 1948. The Dixiecrats received thirty-nine electoral votes, one-fifth of the popular vote in the South, and 98.8 percent of the total Dixiecrat vote was from the South. The Dixiecrats carried Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where Thurmond and Wright were listed as the Democratic Party nominees.
Although the Dixiecrats have been dismissed as a failed third party, they were essential to southern political change. The Dixiecrat Party broke the solid South’s historic allegiance to the national Democratic Party and in doing so inaugurated an unpredictable era in which white southerners grappled with a variety of vehicles designed to thwart racial progress. Although the Dixiecrats as a distinct political entity did not survive past 1948, white southerners used the movement’s organizational and intellectual framework to create new political institutions and new alliances in their desperate attempt to stymie racial progress and preserve power. Some Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic Party, while others remained uncomfortable with the party’s civil rights position and chose to be political independents in the 1950s. In South Carolina many former Dixiecrats joined “Independents for Eisenhower” in 1952. Many independents eventually joined the Republican Party in the 1960s. The most famous convert was Strom Thurmond, who supported Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and who ran for reelection to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1966. The Dixiecrats ultimately represent a transitional middle ground between the national Democratic Party, political independence, and eventually, for some, the Republican Party.
Cohodas, Nadine. Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Frederickson, Kari. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Garson, Robert A. The Democratic Party and the Politics of Sectionalism,
1941–1948. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974.