This header is inspired by another encounter with one of the Republican Party’s favorite bad faith arguments about race and racism. Did you know that the Democrats founded the Ku Klux Klan and that Republicans were the Party of Lincoln? While I don’t want to sport with your intelligence by stating the obvious, I also didn’t have time to prepare an in-depth analysis of the Southern Strategy. So let’s restrict ourselves to one specific claim: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and most of its opponents were Democrats.
Here is the claim, as stated in a 2002 Wall Street Journal article:
With a little research, the actual voting record for both Houses of Congress shows that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate on a 73-to-27 vote. The Democratic supermajority in the Senate split their vote 46 (69%) for and 21 (31%) against. The Republicans, on the other hand, split their vote 27 for (82%) and 6 against (18%). Thus, the no vote consisted of 78% Democrats. Further, the infamous 74-day filibuster was led by the Southern Democrats, who overwhelmingly voted against the act.
An examination of the House vote shows a similar pattern. The House voted 290 to 130 in favor. Democrats split their vote 152 (61%) to 96 (39%) while Republicans split theirs 138 (80%) to 34 (20%). The no vote consisted of 74% Democrats. Clearly, the 1964 Civil Rights Act could not have been passed without the leadership of Republicans such as [Senator Minority Leader] Everett Dirksen and the votes of Republicans.
On its face, this claim is accurate. A higher percentage of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act than Democrats. But there are several caveats which can be teased even from this short excerpt – namely, that comment about “Southern Democrats.” And the fact that it was a Democratic President which pushed the bills through Congress is, of course, unmentioned – as is the fact that the Republican Party, so devoted to Civil Rights, nominated Barry Goldwater, one of the Civil Rights Act’s most outspoken opponents, as its presidential candidate that same year.
But let’s take a closer look. Because the “Southern Democrats” caveat is pretty important:
The House of Representatives:
Northern states: 281-32
So, a total of 9 congressmen from Southern (read: ex-Confederate) states voted for the Civil Rights Act between both parties, in both houses of Congress. Not an inspiring record. But the data becomes far more useful if we break it down by party and region:
Northern Democrats: 145-8
Southern Democrats: 8-83
Northern Republicans: 136-24
Southern Republicans: 0-11
Northern Democrats: 45-1
Southern Democrats: 1-21
Northern Republicans: 27-5
Southern Republicans: 0-1
- “North” includes all states outside the former Confederacy. This incorporates western states which weren’t part of the Union during the Civil War, various border states (all but one of Kentucky’s House delegation voted against the Act), and also that Robert Byrd (D-WV) is considered a “Northern Democrat.”
- Northern Republicans who voted against the Civil Rights Act were arch-conservatives like Goldwater and Norris Cotton (R-NH) in the Senate and John Ashbrook (R-OH) and Bob Wilson (R-CA) in the House. While some conservatives (Dirksen, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford, etc.) did support the Act, none of its opponents could be characterized as liberal.
- Most of the Southern Democrats who supported the bill were Texans (4 in the House, including Barbara Jordan’s friend Jack Brooks, and Senator Ralph Yarborough), whom Lyndon Johnson exercised particular influence over. Another was Claude Pepper (D-FL), who’d lost a Senate race in 1950 after being Red-baited over his opposition to Harry Truman’s Cold War policies.
- There was only one (1) Republican Senator from the South, John Tower (R-TX), in 1964. Strom Thurmond, of course, would switch parties as a result of the Civil Rights Act. Due to the inertia of the Senate, few of the other prominent segregationists (Byrd, Richard Russell, Sam Ervin, etc.) followed him lest they lose seniority, committee appointments, etc. As they retired or died, however, most were replaced by Republicans.
Overall, the lesson to draw from the Civil Rights Act is that it passed with bipartisan support, and most of its opponents could be defined by region and/or ideology rather than party. Fortunately, no political party would, in the coming years, use white backlash over civil rights and Black activism for political benefit!