The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

LBJ, the Voting Rights Act, and the ceding of the South

One of the things I've been worrying away at here since John Kerry was sent back to Fangorn [1] is the desolidification of the South - How The South Was Lost [2].

A piece of the puzzle is the calculations made at the time by the Dems - led by John Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson - of the consequences of moving from a minimalist position on race (JFK's policy in the first two years of his administration) to a maximalist one (ramming what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress).

And one well-known (except, until recently, to me) contemporary vignette is the conversation between LBJ and key aide Bill Moyers [3] as retailed by David Halberstam:
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be perceived, I think, as a major American achievement. And an achievement for Johnson, who knew that even as he was doing it, he was doing irrevocable damage to his own party. The night he signed the legislation, he turned to Bill Moyers [a speechwriter in the Johnson White House at the time] and said, “I’ve just turned the South over to the Republicans for your lifetime and mine.” But he knew he had no choice.

One or two points spring to mind:

First, the decision to jettison the South had been communicated long before the VRA was passed - or even introduced. I'm supposing that the critical announcements were JFK's TV address on June 11 1963, coupled with his message to Congress on June 19 1963, proposing enactment of a wide-ranging Civil Rights Act of 1963.

Dallek in his biography (p605) suggests the political calculation behind the decision:
The alternative to civil rights legislation was civil strife, which would injure the national well-being, embarrass the country before the world, and jeopardize the Kennedy presidency. And since the South seemed likely to vote Republican in the next election, a show of courage made good political sense, and would probably gain him more than he would lose. "Kennedy will lose the segregationist vote," a reporter for the Chattanooga Times said in May. "But he'll get 110% of the Negro vote no matter how much Martin Luther King and others criticize him for doing less than the maximum for civil rights. In a close election in Tennessee, the Negroes hold the balance."

Dallek does not quote polling evidence to back up the suggestion that Kennedy could expect to lose the South in 1964, but it seems plausible [4]. In 1960, Kennedy tallied 81 electoral votes from the Confederacy [5]; their loss would have reduced his total from 303 to 202. But, it seems, polls were telling him that, like FDR, he didn't need the South:
if you look at the regional breakdowns in the September and October 1963 Gallup polls, taken just before Kennedy was assassinated, it is clear that he was heading to a victory very much like Johnson's in 1964. He was winning the East and Midwest and much of the West by margins far larger than Franklin Roosevelt's; his job rating fell in 1963 only among white Southerners after he supported what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Of course, dumping the South would do no favours to later Democrats in closer elections. But - this is the iron rule - a candidate can only run for one office at a time [6].

At the time, Kennedy's 'fear' of failure in 1964 was part of his pitch to legislators over his Civil Rights Act of 1963 [7]. Was it genuine? Dallek mentions (p642) his August 1 press conference in which he was questioned thus:
There are indications lately that your policies on civil rights are costing you heavily in political prestige and popularity. Would you comment on that, and would you tell us whether civil rights are worth an election?

JFK starts his reply
Well, I assume what you say is probably right...

Undoubtedly there is polling evidence available which supports, or doesn't, a fall in approval from June to August, followed by a pick-up by September, and (perhaps) sufficient internals in the polling to judge the extent to which the ups and downs are attributable to civil rights, rather than any other issue.

It's just that none of this evidence is online, that I can see [8].

(Perhaps, by the time I've finished the Dallek - I'm up to p374 - all this will be clearer.)

Second, Finley suggests that, as desegregation became more urgent following World War 2, the aim of the Southern Caucus in the Senate had essentially been to play for time, relying on the effective inability of liberal forces to force clotures on civil rights matters.

This strategy had been shot to buggery by the embrace by state politicians in the South of massive resistance. Where the scenes on TV that would have fed their strategy would have been Negroes running amuck in the face of a calm but resolute police force, it was the police who were seen to do most of the running amuck (often aided by white citizenry) whilst the Negroes seemed have a corner on calmness and resolution.

As happened a hundred years earlier, the real enemies of the Southern way of life had been the fire-eaters, not the Yankees. Had the Southern Caucus strategy succeeded, a Nixonian backlash (against Negro violence) amongst the Silent Majority in the North would have been sufficient - one might speculate - to break the coalition required to pass a civil rights bill in 1963 or 1964.

Third, LBJ's forecast of the loss of the South was remarkably premature, if judged by party affiliations and Congressional elections [9]. For the GOP to gain a solid House majority in the Confederacy took decades; strong GOP showings by Reagan and Bush I; the death or retirement of Democratic incumbents and - irony of ironies - the racial gerrymanders mandated by the Voting Rights Act [10].

  1. Skimming the Dec/Jan/Feb archives is probably the best way to get at the meat (such as it is).

  2. Keith Finley's thesis Southern Opposition to Civil Rights in the United States Senate and Merle and Earl Black's Rise of the Southern Republicans the principal sources.

  3. On Moyers' White House jobs, his LBJ Library bio says:
    After the assassination of President Kennedy, Moyers left the Peace Corps to join President Johnson's staff as special assistant. He played a key role in organizing and supervising the 1964 Great Society task forces and was a principal architect of Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign. When Walter Jenkins resigned from Johnson's staff in October 1964, Moyers became the President's chief of staff; in July 1965, he also assumed the duties of White House Press Secretary, and continued in this dual role until he departed the White House in January 1967 to become publisher of Newsday.
    So far as I'm aware, Moyers is pretty much absent from discussions of the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam during the first eighteen months of the administration (my other main interest in the period).

  4. LBJ as the first of the three dead cat bounce Southern Dem presidents dead on two grounds: the JFK assassination and being a son of the South.

  5. The list: AL-5, AR-8, GA-12, LA-10, NC-14, SC-8, TX-24.

  6. Mostly. LBJ ran for both Senator and Vice President in 1960.

  7. Dallek says (p641) that
    ...Kennedy remained uncertain that he could sway Congress, and he worried that failure might be disastrous for his administration.
    But then points out that he uses a poll which
    no one ever located
    showing plummeting approval ratings to back up talk of this danger in a meeting of civil rights leaders on June 22 1963.

  8. From experience, I'd say it probably is online in the form of a chart in some academic paper on a topic tangentially concerned with the matter in hand here. And only by serendipity will that paper be found.

  9. The Blacks' book explains in loving detail. Desolidifying the South in presidential elections was nothing new - Hoover, Eisenhower, even Nixon in 1960 made inroads - but left little trace in party affiliations or Congressional results.

  10. Was Johnson foreseeing the effect of these gerrymanders when he spoke to Moyers? I doubt it. They really only kicked in with redistricting following the 1990 Census.

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