There was a time in the not too distant past – say, the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s – when our Southern states possessed a distinct, separate culture, setting them apart from the rest of the United States. The people had a delightful Southern accent, so strikingly unique it was, at times, difficult to understand. They clung stubbornly to their old ways and were quite proud of their history and their surviving, pre-Civil War mansions and estates. They welcomed visitors from other parts of the U.S., were happy to share their Southern recipes – grits and fried chicken – and carefully nurtured their magnolia gardens.
The vast majority of the “Old South” voted Democratic and supported such “radical” programs as Social Security and unemployment benefits. Politicians described the Southern states as the “Solid South” and the “Democratic Block.” Nevertheless, though they supported welfare programs, they remained very conservative in other respects. After all, Southerners represented the Bible Belt and there wouldn’t be any theories of evolution taught in their schools.
Then too, hidden beneath the veneer of Southern charm were some dark, offensive traditions and practices, foremost being blatant racism. Many Southerners were racist to the extreme, resulting in segregated restaurants, restrooms, churches, housing and, of course, schools. There were even separate water fountains. Southern states were also the least educated and most poverty-stricken in the country. (The last statistics I’ve seen indicate they still are.) From Galveston, Texas, to Culpepper, Va., their thinking was narrow and closed and they suppressed a violent streak that was swift to erupt in certain situations. And erupt it did when the first Northern, racially-integrated “freedom buses” rolled into their tranquil rural towns and cities. Suddenly outsiders and tourists were no longer welcome because they disrupted the Southern charm.
True or not, Southerners identified the civil rights movement and racial integration with the Democratic Party and within the space of a few months the solid Democratic South was not only cracked, it was demolished, much to the delight of Republicans. I surely wouldn’t say all the Republicans were racists – not by any stretch – but they recognized a political opportunity when they saw one and they seized it in the name of “states’ rights” – that is, states reserved the right to run their schools and set racial policies without interference from the federal government. Overnight, Southern politicians not only abandoned the Democrats, they actually joined the Republican Party.
Today, we still witness the repercussions of this reversal. During the past 50 years, Southern Republicans have taken over many key positions in the Senate and especially in the House and they haven’t relaxed any of their dogmatic, hardcore beliefs; i.e., anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-gay and anti-taxes. They’re the backbone of the Tea Party and are, like the Southern states of yesteryear, out of step with the rest of America. While Republicans from the West and Northeast have tried to work compromises with the president and while Midwestern Republicans are at least open for discussions, the Southern Republicans are as closed-minded as ever. The situation has drastically split the Republican Party and, if the GOP ever hopes to win another national election, it has to change the attitudes and ideas of the Southern block.
That won’t be easy.