Civil Rights Act 1964

In a recent article (June 1, 1999) in the Washington Times, R.D. Davis, a member of the black leadership network Project 21 and a writer and radio talk show host in Huntsville, Ala., commented that, “History tends to unilaterally and falsely depict Republicans as racists when Southern Democrats truly deserved this title.” In defense of his argument he cites the voting record of Democrats and Republicans on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On this monumental piece of legislation, Republicans supported the bill 27-6 in the Senate (82%) and 138-34 in the House (80%) while Democrats supported the bill 46-21 in the Senate (69%) and 152-96 in the House (61%). On the surface it would indeed appear that the Republicans, and not the Democrats as commonly assumed, were the champions of civil rights in the 1960s.

However, a slightly more careful analysis of the Civil Rights Act voting record shows a distinct split between Northern and Southern politicians. Among the southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia), Senate Democrats voted 1-21 against the bill (5%) while Republicans voted 0-1 (0%). In the House, southern Democrats voted 7-87 (7%) while southern Republicans voted 0-10 (0%). Among the remaining states, Democrats voted 145-9 in favor of the bill (94%) while Republicans voted 138-24 for the bill (85%). In both the North and the South, Democrats supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act at a higher rate than the Republicans.

The marriage within the Democratic Party of the northern liberals and the southern Dixiecrats had always been a strange one based more upon a common enemy (the Republican Party) than upon common ideals. In fact, when the 1948 Democratic platform came out strongly in favor of civil rights, delegates from 13 southern states held their own convention shortly after the adjournment of the Democratic National Convention and nominated Strom Thurmond to run for president on their own “States Rights Democrats” ticket.

While Mr. Davis is clearly correct in his assertion that Southern Democrats were staunch foes of civil rights in the 1960s, Southern Republicans, though fewer in number, were equally adamant in their opposition to civil rights legislation.

The modern Democratic Party owes its current character far more to the Northern liberals than to the Dixiecrats. If the old Southern Democrats are to be labeled as racist, then Al Gore and Bill Clinton are Southern Democrats in name only as their defense of civil rights places them solidly among the Northern Democrats and not with the Dixiecrats of old.

Victor A. Matheson
Instructor, Department of Economics and Business
Lake Forest College


Interesting analysis of the voting record of Dems. and Repubs. on civil rights in the 1960’s. It seems that the divide was more North vs. South than Democrat vs. Republicans.

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