By Barry D. Friedman, Ph.D.

             After the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, white Southerners showed their resentment for the Republican party’s prosecution of the Civil War, and its sternness during Reconstruction, by attaching themselves to the Democratic party.  On the other hand, black Southerners showed their gratitude for the Republican party’s offensive against slavery by showing an affinity for the party of Lincoln.  Once local control returned to the Southern states after Reconstruction, white officials began to put into place their imaginative, assorted obstacles to impede voting by black people (literacy tests with "grandfather clauses," poll taxes, etc.).  The Republican party virtually disappeared from the South.  Thus, the “Solid South”--i.e., the one-party (Democratic) South--came into existence.  Southern states delivered their electoral votes to the Democratic nominee for president in election after election.  The only competition for statewide or local office would occur in Democratic primary elections.  Without interparty competition, it was not unusual for a Democratic member of Congress to be reelected for term after term of office; therefore, Democratic Southerners tended to accumulate more seniority than members of Congress from other regions of the country.  Meanwhile, in 1910, the U. S. House of Representatives decided to break the power of the speaker of the House (at that point, it was Joseph Cannon, R-Ill.) to hand-pick committee chairmen by instituting the “seniority system.”  Under this system, the member of the majority party who had served the longest on a committee would automatically become the chairman, irrespective of the opinion of the speaker.  When the seniority system was combined with the generally longer longevity of Southern Democratic members, the result was that many of the standing committees were chaired by white Southern Democrats.  This gave white Southerners--most of whom were avowedly racist at the time--influence in Congress greatly in excess of their proportional numbers.

            This stable arrangement was disrupted in 1964.  In that year, the Republican nominee for president, U. S. Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), vocally opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson had championed.  As a direct result, five deep-South states gave their electoral votes to the Republican candidate, a rare event up to that point.  On the other hand, black citizens, who had identified with the party of Lincoln, gave up on the Republican party, and attached themselves to the Democratic party.  Richard M. Nixon, the 1968 Republican nominee, fashioned a so-called “Southern strategy” in which he touted “states’ rights” and a “law and order” policy, a signal to white Southerners that he would be passive in the arena of civil rights and a methodology that solidified black Americans' alienation from the Republican party.  With this strategy, Nixon won several Southern states (although Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace peeled away five deep-South states in his third-party campaign) and captured the presidency.

            Southern Democrats continued to be overrepresented as congressional committee chairmen through the 1960s and into the 1970s.  However, other developments crept up on them.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 kicked off the national government’s efforts to demolish the impediments that Southern governments had installed to obstruct voting by black citizens.  As more and more blacks registered to vote, white southern Democratic politicians found it increasingly perilous to express racist positions, and began to moderate their rhetoric.  In reaction, some white-supremacist Democratic voters migrated to the Republican party, which reared its head again in the South.  It became commonplace for white southern Democratic politicians to express remorse for their racist histories, as they found it necessary to appeal to black voters for their support.

            The Southern committee chairmen encountered another setback in 1975.  The 1974 election was the opportunity for the American electorate to react to the resignations of both President Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, each one resulting from a bizarre scandal.  The election swept left-wing Democrats into office, and the “Watergate babies” in Congress had little interest in serving on committees chaired by anti-civil-rights Southern Democrats.  In 1975 party caucuses, they voted to put an end to the automatic appointment of the most senior members of committees to be the chairmen.  One might have expected the Southern Democratic chairmen to be swept out of their jobs.  But something different happened.  Instead, many of the Southern Democratic chairmen conceded the errors of their ways in the past, and announced that they now saw things very differently, thus saving their jobs.  For entirely pragmatic reasons, Democratic party leaders and elected officials abandoned racism as a political way of life.

            Nevertheless, racism continued to have a constituency in the South and, to a large degree, racists fled from what had become a moderate, integrated Democratic party and converted to Republicanism.  The ranks of the Southern states’ Republican parties proceeded to swell.  In state after state, the Republican party celebrated as it elected its first Republican U. S. representative since Reconstruction, its first U. S. senator since Reconstruction, its first Republican governor since Reconstruction, and so on.  The Solid South was history.  Two-party competition had returned to the Southern states.