From the end of the Civil War until the 1970’s, the South was solidly Democratic, thus making it the so-called “Solid South.” It’s been said that it was Democratic because Lincoln was a Republican. After all, Lincoln waged a successful war against the South and its “peculiar institution,” slavery.
For over a hundred years, the Democratic Party controlled southern politics, punishing the party of Lincoln for the war, effectively shutting the Republicans out of power. The natural constituency of the Republicans, African-Americans, were barred from the electoral process. Literacy tests, poll taxes and outright intimidation were used to keep blacks from voting.
Southern Democrats, by reason of their control of their respective state legislatures and Jim Crow, had effective control of the U.S. Congress from World War II on. Seniority meant that Southern Democrats had effective control of committees in both chambers. Southern Democrats were more socially conservative than those Democrats in the north, and often voted in opposition to them on progressive issues.
As an example, a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives in 1956 that provided federal funding for school construction. Initially, southern and northern Democrats supported this bill, with the House Republicans voting in opposition to the aid. Then an amendment was added. It would support aid, but only to those states where the schools were integrated. Northern Democrats supported the amended bill. Republicans, though not against integration, chose fiscal restraint over racial equality.
Southern Democrats completely flip-flopped. Though they supported the first version of the bill, they could not stomach an amended bill that would deny their segregated states federal aid. Together, southern Democrats and Republicans would vote against the amended bill and racial equality in public schools, defeating the bill.
The rift between the southern and northern wings of the Democratic Party would widen with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By this time, the northern wing had gained ascendency in both the party and in Congress. They, with the help of President Lyndon Johnson (an atypical southern Democrat), pushed through the acts that ended legal discrimination in employment, housing and voting in the South.
But not without a price. Historian Robert Dallek, in his book “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times” (Oxford Press, 1998), tells of an encounter between Johnson and Bill Moyers, Johnson’s press secretary. Shortly after Johnson signed into law the above acts, Moyers sensed that his boss was depressed. Asked why, Johnson replied, “Because Bill, I think that we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
With the 2014 congressional elections the American South returned to its past. Johnson was right. The morphing of southern Democrats into the Republican Party is now complete. Whatever competition existed between the parties in the past five decades is gone. Different name, same party, for the foreseeable future.