“Politics and Society in the South”; ‘The Changing South’

I. The Changing South

1. Old Politics, New People

The Old “Southern” Politics

The politics of the old south—that is, pre-Civil Rights movement—were overwhelmingly dominated a one-party system of the Democratic Party. As a result, the Democratic Party highly depressed rates of white political participation, relentless subordination and exclusion of African Americans from politics, and state politics devoted solely to advancing and protecting the interests of the “haves” over the “have nots.” The Democrats of the old south decimated their political opponents (blacks, white Republicans, and white populists) by stringent suffrage requirements such as poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding tests, secret ballots, registration and residency requirements, and the white only primary). The measures imposed “insurmountable burdens upon blacks (and also unschooled whites) who often could not read (and thus correctly mark) the ballots, and whites with meager incomes, who could not afford to pay a poll tax.

As a result, the south became a “broadly based oligarchy” of white males which enforced the notion that blacks were not members of the political community and that for whites, voting was a privilege to be earned rather than a right to be exercised.

According to Black and Black (1987), “No one has better captured the meaning of the Democratic Party to these white southerners, only a generation or so removed from the Civil War and Reconstruction, than W.J. Cash:

“The world knows the story of the Democratic Party in the south; how, once violence had opened the way to political action, this party became the institutionalized incarnation of the will to White Supremacy. How, indeed, it ceased to be a party in the South and became the party of the South, a kind of confraternity having in its keeping the whole corpus of Southern loyalties, and so irresistibly commanding the allegiance of faithful whites that to doubt it, to question it in any detail, was ipso facto to stand branded as a renegade to race, country, to God, and to Southern Womanhood.”

Most southern Democrats’ core beliefs included glorification of the Confederacy and veneration of the Lost Cause, the primacy of state’s rights over rights of the national government, a constricted sphere of legitimate functions for state and local governments, minimal taxation and expenditure, an emphasis on individual rather than social responsibility for personal and family economic well-being, and the legitimacy of extralegal force (epitomized by lynching) to punish perceived violations of the region’s caste system.

With the party’s stranglehold on controlling elections, general elections became empty and meaningless rituals. Democrats has previously chosen nominees by party convention, but these elitist gatherings, composed of successful local party activists, denied rank-and-file Democrats any direct voice in selecting their party’s candidates. Losing candidates and their followers could always charge that the “people’s choice” has been rejected by the party leadership. As a matter of party survival, leading Democrats gradually began to understand the importance of permitting registered voters to make the final selection on candidates. The transition to the primary system facilitated demagoguery because “primary candidates had to lambaste their opponents publicly” (6). Such attacks might accuse an opponent of being a communist, republican-sympathizer, and not “Christian-enough.” Since the south lacked any major political cleavages, the primary system forced candidates to stand out by over exaggerating or simply creating issues out of thin air. That is to say, candidates who were the most loud and lewd, received the nomination. The common theme of candidates was racist in nature and appealed to the “hypnotic Negro-fixation” of poor whites who sought to keep emancipated slaves and their children in their place in the caste system (8). In other words, the politics of white supremacy dominated the political climate and eager office seekers were quite enthusiastic to incite voters by appealing to their social and economic anxieties to resist any change in the racial status quo. The fear, at the time at least, was that even minimal racial change might be seen as a precedent upon which future reforms would generate.

“When the general issue of the proper position of blacks in southern society was once again raised about mid century—the key events were Supreme Court decisions outlawing the “white” primary in 1944 and school segregation in 1954 and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—the black belt whites united to defend their way of life. They were joined by whites outside the black belts and by much of southern industry and finance in the “massive resistance” movement, a movement that way initially successful” (11). As an outcome of the Civil Rights movement and resulting Federal government involvement in civil rights issues, many of the transparent differences in racial practices between the South and the rest of nation have vanished. However, that does not mean that modern southern politics “is completely emancipated from the old-style racism or that interracial conflicts are unimportant.” (11).

The Changing Racial Composition of the South

Between 1915 and 1970, more than 6 million African-Americans moved out of the south to cities across the Northeast, Midwest, and West. This relocation—called the Great Migration—resulted in massive demographic shifts across the United States. “In the black exodus Key discerned both a potentially major change in the structure of regional politics and the possibility of diminished white preoccupation with the political and economic subordination of blacks” (12).

In 1920, the percentage of blacks among all southern (32) exceeded the percentage of blacks among all non southerners (3) by a factor of 11. “Seventy seven percent of all black Americans lived in the south in 1920; six decades later, following extensive black out-migration, the south contained only 45 percent of the nation’s blacks” (13). One of the most telling demographic changes affecting twentieth-century southern politics is that diminishing weight of the black belt in statewide elections. In 1920 more than one-fourth (27 percent) of the region’s total presidential vote originated in black belt counties (rural areas with black populations of 30 percent or more). Black belt whites accounted for 43 percent of the vote cast in the Deep South verses 21 percent of the Peripheral south vote. Six decades later, however, the potential influence of conservative whites from these areas had been substantially reduced. In the 1980 presidential campaign the rural black belts contributed only 10 percent of the total southern vote (23 percent in the deep south, but merely4 percent in the peripheral south) (15). Not only has the prominence of the black belt vote declined, but much of the vote emanating from the black belt comes from blacks. Black reentry into politics and massive population gains outside the black belt have made it virtually impossible for conservative black belt whites, the leadership echelon in classic southern politics, to control contemporary political agendas.

The New Southerners

“Old South” politics flourished in a homogeneous electorate. “Prior to mid century most voters were whites, born and raised in the south of the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Even after the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, most members of the active electorate were males who had experienced—the tumultuous, life-or-death struggles of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and disfranchisement. The majority had scant formal education; many were marginal farmers or otherwise employed in manual labor” (16). Constituencies primarily composed of “unlettered, rural, white, male Democrats nourished the regions reputation for spellbinding oratory, and often the speechmaking included racism of the most callous and blatant sort (16).

While that specific demographic may have been tired to the Democratic Party of the “old south,” the trends expressed in Table 1.2 show the steady increases in the proportion of whites born in the United States but outside the Census Bureau’s sixteen-state South—in the white populations of the south” (16). Non-southern whites, at mid century accounted for about 8 percent of the region’s white population. In 1980, that percentage was 20 percent.

The so-called “northernization” of the south, occurred in four states: Florida (tropical climate attracted retirees and military installations), Virginia (substantial federal government prescience from military and civilians), Texas (defense installations), and Arkansas (retirement center). As of the writing of this book in 1987, Florida possessed two-fifths of “all Yankees living in the South and was the only southern state in which northern-born whites were a majority of the total white population” (16). “Northernization,” however, has not penetrated any of the other southern states.

“By far the most important and dynamic factor with regard to political consequences has been the relocation of northern-born whites in the South’s expanding metropolitan areas. In 1980, most of the counties containing the central cities of the South’s principal Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMAs) possessed Yankee populations of at least 10 percent.” (19). Also, the relationship between urbanization and “northernization”, critical for the creation of sustained southern Republicanism, was, nonetheless, must stronger in the Peripheral South, then in the Deep South.

According to Beck and Lopatto, in “The End of Southern Distinctiveness,” there were three different political generations of white voters in the south:

• The Solid South Generation, who reached voting age before 1946.

• The post-World War II generation, who reached the voting age between 1946-1964.

• The post-Voting Rights generation, who reached the voting age after 1964.

The Solid South generation of native white contained the standard bearers of the southern democracy. By the 1976-1980 elections, they represented only about 1/7 of all voters in the south. As a result of aging, their once political clout has all but dissipated. In the diminishment of the Solid South generation, the post-World War II and post-Voting Rights generations have become more educated and have a higher probability of obtaining a middle-class status. Unlike the previous generation, there two are more comfortable living in urban areas and are less likely to identify as Democrats than as independents or Republicans.

Prior to the Civil and Voting Rights movement, white migrants to the South were rare and most blacks were excluded from politics, native white southerners monopolized the electorate. However, since the 1950s white populations from the Northeast and Midwest have increasingly viewed the South as a land for opportunity for either work or retirement. Accordingly, these migrants “have moved southward in such numbers that they constituted one-fifth of the population in 1976-1980” (20). While the southbound migrants may not be a homogeneous group, they are better educated, more prosperous, ethnically diverse, and much less Democratic than the Solid South generation. Then entry of non-southern whites and the revival of black participation have destroyed the one-party dominant South.

In the 1952-1956 elections, whites born and raised in the South made up 83 percent of the voting population. In the 1976-1980 elections that number had decreased to 57%. “The contemporary electorate constrains blacks and whites, Yankees and natives, women and men; and it is made up principally of individuals whose formative political experiences are far removed from the traumas of the turn-of-the-century South” (22). Thus, many of the long-held southern political traditions: strict racial segregation, unquestioned loyalty to the Democratic Party, and hatred of the Republican Party are no longer evident or compelling.


1. Black, Earl, and Merle Black. Politics and Society in the South. Harvard, 1987

2. The impetus of Black and Black’s (1987) analysis of southern politics is from V.O. Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), the definite study of the “old” southern politics. Key’s work—focused from 1920-1949—critically analyzed the South’s most salient political practices.

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