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Dixiecrats' 1948 Loss Ushered in New Era

The Dixiecrats' futile run for the presidency in 1948 was a political footnote -- but it signaled big changes to come.

The short-lived party boosted an ambitious politician named Strom Thurmond, helped unravel decades of Democratic control in the South, and heralded years of tenacious, violent Southern backlash to civil rights.

Now the pro-segregation offshoot of the Democratic Party has been invoked again in national politics, after Senate GOP leader Trent Lott's warm embrace of Thurmond's quixotic bid for the presidency 54 years ago.

Nine out of every 10 voters in Lott's home state of Mississippi chose the segregation ticket of Thurmond and his running mate, then-Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright.

Lott's words at a 100th birthday celebration for Thurmond -- "and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either" -- threw new light on a pivotal chapter in American political history.

The Dixiecrats, officially called the States Rights Democratic Party, were a response to the national Democratic Party's adoption of a civil-rights plank to its platform. Some Southern delegates walked out of the national party's convention, though Thurmond stayed, according to Kari Frederickson, history professor at the University of Alabama.

"It was just a terrible moment," said former South Carolina Gov. John West, who was a law student and war veteran when Thurmond, then his governor, joined with the critics and launched the Dixiecrats.

"There was a tremendous emotional fear among the white community that integration would mean white girls dating black men, amalgamation of the races ... the feeling was, I hate to say it, overwhelming, if not unanimous among the white community."

The Democratic split occurred in the midst of increasing pressure following World War II to take action on civil rights.

Black men returned from military service with new ambitions, while registration drives throughout the South, backed by federal court rulings, sought to get more blacks to vote. Poll taxes and other obstacles blocked black voters in many states.

At the same time, there was a wave of horrific racial violence across the South, said Frederickson, author of "The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968."

President Harry S. Truman wanted to court black votes, and "was also quite repulsed by the violence, particularly toward men in uniform," Frederickson said. Truman addressed Congress on civil rights, and then the party adopted a civil-rights plank.

The Dixiecrats never expected to win the presidency, just to deny an electoral vote victory to either Truman or the Republican candidate, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, which would let the House of Representatives choose the president.

But they didn't come close. Thurmond won only Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama for a total of 39 electoral votes.

He captured 56 percent of the white vote in the Deep South -- the states he won plus Georgia -- but only 12 percent of the white vote in the rest of the old Confederacy, said Merle Black, political science professor at Emory University.

Still, Thurmond's campaign weakened the hold national Democrats had held on the South since the Civil War. White conservatives slowly began to vote for Republicans for president and then other offices.

The race also gave Thurmond important political experience, and deep support at home. He won a write-in election for Senate in 1954, where for years he was a strident opponent of civil rights legislation, once filibustering a 1957 civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes -- still the nation's record.

He changed, however, with the nation's racial politics, becoming the first Southern senator to hire a black aide, supporting the appointment of a black Southern federal judge and voting to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.