The Truth about the Dixiecrats

What they were about

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online, December 16, 2002 9:40 a.m. More by Kopel on post-WWII American history.

Besides segregation, what was in the 1948 platform of the states-rights' Democratic party? On the Larry King's CNN show, Senator Lott said that Strom Thurmond would have been a good president because he would have made a strong national defense and a balanced budget priorities. Let's take a look at the official Dixiecrat platform, as published in the reference book National Party Platforms. To start with, there's nothing about national defense or the budget.

By far the largest portion of the Dixiecrat platform is an extensive endorsement of states' rights. This defense was couched in strongly stated appeals to constitutional values, such as "the constitutional right to choose one's associates; to accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one's living in any lawful way." Yet state segregation laws interfered with all these rights, and with the Constitution.

Jim Crow laws forbade interracial marriage. They imposed segregation on private business such as trains, trolleys, restaurants, hotels, boarding houses, and theaters. For example, some states made it a crime for a black barber to cut a white woman's hair. Some of the businesses covered by Jim Crow laws would have segregated anyway, but some would not have bothered, and the laws which Governor Thurmond was attempting to shield from federal interference were laws which interfered with the rights of business to choose how to serve their customers, and likewise interfered with the rights of customers to choose businesses.

The Dixiecrats were also angry that Truman, like Franklin Roosevelt, fervently supported union rights — another important element of "the constitutional right to choose one's associates."

There were five major sections of the Dixiecrat platform, one of which denounced "proposed FBI powers," and featured frantic warnings that the Democrats and Republicans both wanted to impose a totalitarian police state. In the platform's final section, "New Policy," two of the eight platform items further condemned "the effort to establish nation-wide a police state in this republic." (The Smoking Gun has an online version of the final section; TSG's version is from a state convention, and differs in some small ways from the final section of the official platform.)

Now if Senators Thurmond and Lott had adhered to this particular language of the 1948 platform, things might indeed be better in this country. But to the contrary, the Dixiecrat concerns about a police state appear to have existed solely in the context for federal efforts to secure civil rights for black people.

No senator outdid Strom Thurmond in the 1960s for outraged denunciation of the Supreme Court's strict enforcement of the criminal-procedure provisions of the Bill of Rights. In 2000, he and his staff were leading advocates of a proposal to allow government agents to conduct secret searches without obtaining search warrants.

In 1973-74, it was revealed that the Nixon White House had engaged in numerous police-state tactics, illegally attempting to use the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA against the president's political opponents. Article Two of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee's Articles of Impeachment summarized these offenses. Yet first-term Republican Representative Trent Lott voted against this Article of Impeachment.

He likewise voted against the first Article of Impeachment, based on President Nixon's cover-up and obstruction of the Watergate investigation. Hypocritically, he later voted to impeach President Clinton for obstruction of justice and perjury — although the Clinton offenses had occurred in the context of a private civil-rights lawsuit, whereas Nixon had been obstructing a criminal investigation about a presidential election.

After the House Judiciary Committee had reported the Articles of Impeachment, an unanimous Supreme Court decision forced the Nixon White House to release several of the tapes which Nixon had secretly recorded. The tapes proved Nixon's guilt of obstruction of justice beyond any doubt. Senate Republican leaders who had staunchly defended Nixon, such as Barry Goldwater and John Tower, decided that the president could no longer hold office. With Nixon's guilt certain, the White House found that only two senators were still certain to vote against impeaching the criminal president. Strom Thurmond was one of them.

Like Lott, Thurmond inconsistently voted to impeach President Clinton.

Thurmond bolted the 1948 Democratic Convention after Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Horatio Humphrey won a floor fight to amend the Platform to strengthen the civil-rights language. Humphrey's Amendment read:

We highly commend President Harry S. Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights.

We call upon the Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American Principles:
(1) the right to full and equal political participation;
(2) the right to equal opportunity of employment;
(3) the right to security of person;
(4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.

That's why Thurmond ran for president. A principled advocate of small government could, as Barry Goldwater did, oppose the second item as applied to federal control of private employment. But every other item was a straightforward application of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and of the Fifteenth Amendment: the right of black people to vote; the right of black people to be hired for federal, state, and local government jobs without discrimination; the right of black people to own and carry arms for protection, and to receive police protection, against criminals such as the Ku Klux Klan; and the right to serve equally in the United States military.

The Dixiecrat platform quoted from the 1840 Democratic platform, which was the platform of the great Democratic President Martin Van Buren. More than any other President, Van Buren faithfully followed the Constitution, so his platform — fewer than 1,000 words long — is an especially valuable guide for constitutionalists. The part quoted by the Dixiecrats resolved:

That Congress has no power under the constitution, to interfere with or control the domestic institutions of the several states; and such states are the sole and proper judges of everything pertaining to their own affairs, not prohibited by the constitution….

The 1840 platform went to warn, accurately, that Abolitionism would endanger the Union. As a result of the Civil War, the Constitution was changed, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were added. From the late 1870s onward, the equal-protection clause and the prohibition of racial discrimination in voting were nullified in much of America. In seeking to enforce the Constitution, President Truman was following in the footsteps of constitutionalist President Van Buren.

The Dixiecrats made sure not to quote another paragraph of the 1840 platform:

that every citizen and every section of the country has a right to demand and insist upon an equality of rights and privileges, and to complete and ample protection of persons and property from domestic violence or foreign aggression.

That statement is the principle on which the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments are based. States' rights were not a legitimate constitutional basis for states to violate the constitutional rights of their citizens.

Senator Lott shouldn't be pilloried for once calling the Civil War a war of "aggression," for there was a plausible case to made the that Confederate states had a right to secede. There are a good number of Southerners of his generation and older — some of them quite liberal and quite in favor of civil rights — who say the same thing.

But in 1948, with the south firmly in the Union, the south had a duty to obey the Constitution. The Dixiecrats of 1948 stood for nullifying the Constitution, not obeying it, and they were renegades against not only Harry Truman, but against the great historic principles of the Democratic party.

The Dixiecrats supported the raw power of Jim Crow over the lawful command of the Constitution; likewise, Congressmen Thurmond and Lott supported a criminal president of their party who attacked the constitutional rule of law. It is truly a blessing for America that Strom Thurmond never became president. Senator Lott is the wrong choice to lead a party which seeks to follow constitutional values.

Dave Kopel is a contributing editor of NRO.

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