The conservative National Review, which has had a longstanding attachment to racism (FAIR Blog, 4/11/12) which it has lately shown signs of regretting, now has a cover story (5/28/12) by Kevin Williamson that argues that the Democratic Party is now and always has been the party of racism, while the GOP has always been the party of civil rights.
That is because those Southerners who defected from the Democratic Party in the 1960s and thereafter did so to join a Republican Party that was far more enlightened on racial issues than were the Democrats of the era, and had been for a century. There is no radical break in the Republicans’ civil-rights history: From abolition to Reconstruction to the anti-lynching laws, from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964, there exists a line that is by no means perfectly straight or unwavering but that nonetheless connects the politics of Lincoln with those of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Jonathan Chait has a rebuttal of the National Review piece in New York (5/22/12). One key point to add to his response explaining why many Democrats did not immediately jump to the GOP over 1960s civil rights legislation: congressional seniority.
Many Southern Democratic legislators, by virtue of being from the South where only one party mattered, had been in office forever, and thus, through seniority, had high-ranking committee positions. If they switched parties, they would lose the seniority and power. So old racists like senators James Eastland and John Stennis remained Democrats their entire careers, leaving the Senate in 1978 and 1989 respectively.
The history of Stennis’ seat in the Senate pretty much tells the entire story. Stennis was preceded by the monumentally racist KKK member and Democratic Sen. Theodore Bilbo, and succeeded by the racist, Thurmond-revering Republican Trent Lott.
And speaking of Trent Lott, the interview he did with the magazine Southern Partisan in 1984 is worth noting. There he spoke of the Civil War as the North’s “War of Aggression” and attempted to convince the magazine’s neo-Confederate readers that the GOP was no longer the party of Lincoln, but the party of “the South’s sons” and “Jefferson Davis’ descendents.” As Lott told a gathering of the Sons of Confederate Veterans the same year, “The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform.”