Just what was it that was so controversial about Strom Thurmond's past that led to the resignation of Trent Lott as Senate Majority Leader? What about the States' Rights ticket of 1948 still rankles so?
The issue of "states' rights" has been part of the American political debate since the founding of the nation. It's reflected in our two Houses of Congress one proportional the other with each state holding equal weight. That debate also led to the inclusion in the Constitution the Tenth Amendment, which limits the powers of the federal government to those specifically enumerated in the Constitution itself. It is this Amendment that is often cited by those favoring limited federal power, and to argue that states rights should apply to all manner of issues from civil rights to electoral reform to environmental enforcement.
This states' rights issue at hand in the current controversy has a long history too. By the 1850s, the doctrine of states' rights was increasingly used to combat the abolitionist movement. And, it was with a cry of states' rights that the South seceded from the Union in 1860. To this day it is easy to find Confederate sympathizers who insist the Civil War was about the Southern states' right to preserve their economic system.
After the Civil War was over states' rights was used to justify continued segregation and to combat federal anti-lynching laws. The language of movements such as the States' Rights Party and groups like the Citizen's Councils referred to states' rights as a right to "preserve a way of life." A way of life that included segregation.
The formation of the States' Rights Party the ticket on which Strom Thurmond ran in 1948, was spurred on by the domestic policy of Harry Truman, the newly announced Democratic Party Platform and some landmark political speeches. (See below.) At first discontented Southern Democrats tried to foment an anti-Truman rebellion at the 1948 convention. When this strategy failed, some Democrats walked out and held their own convention in Birmingham, Alabama. They nominated then South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond to head the ticket of the States' Rights (also known as the Dixiecrat) Party. This walkout represents the first crack in the previously solid Democratic South.
Truman's Civil Rights Speech
In 1947 President Truman broke new ground in a speech to the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). It sounded a warning bell among some in his own party.
"It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country's efforts to guarantee a freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights.
And when I say all Americans I mean all Americans.
The civil rights laws written in the early years of our republic, and the traditions, which have been built upon them, are precious to us. Those laws were dawn up with the memory still fresh in men's minds of the tyranny of an absentee government. They were written to protect the citizen against any possible tyrannical act by the new government in this country.
But we cannot be content with a civil liberties program, which emphasizes only the need of protection against the possibility of tyranny by the Government.
We cannot stop there.....
We must take the Federal Government a friendly, vigilant defender of the rights and equalities of all Americans. And again I mean all Americans.
As Americans, we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American's achievement should be his ability, his industry and his character. The rewards for his effort should be determined only by these truly relevant qualities."
Read the complete text of President Truman's speech
Read a Southern Senator's response to Truman's speech
Humphrey's Civil Rights Speech
Herbert Humphrey's speech on Civil Rights at the 1948 Democratic Convention was the final straw for the Dixiecrat contingent. They staged their walkout soon after.
"Every citizen has a stake in the emergence of the United States as a leader in a free world. That world is being challenged by the world of slavery. For us to play our part effectively, we must be in a morally sound position.
We canít use a double standard thereís no room for double standards in American politics for measuring our own and other peopleís policies. Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantees of those practiced in our own country.
Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantee of civil rights which I have mentioned in the minority report.
In spite of my desire for unanimous agreement on the entire platform, in spite of my desire to see everybody her in honest and unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification. There can be no hedging the newspaper headlines are wrong! There will be no hedging, and there will be no watering down if you please of the instruments and the principals of the civil-rights program!
To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights. I say to them we are 172 years late! To those who say, to those who say this civil-rights program is an infringement on statesí rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of stateís rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!"
Read the complete text of Humphrey's speech.
Democratic and Republican 1948 Platforms
Part of what the future Dixiecrats objected to was the new plank in the Democratic Party platform on civil rights.
The crucial difference between parties is in the call for federal laws to ensure civil rights.
Read more from the Truman Presidential Museum and Library.
The Democratic Platform stated:
Civil Rights: Against poll tax and segregation of the armed forces. Federal laws should be made to end discrimination in hiring for jobs.
The Republican Platform stated:
Civil Rights: Against poll tax. Right to work should not be stopped by race, color or religion.
Most Americans are familiar with the famous photo of Harry Truman holding a newspaper with the banner headline "Dewey Defeats Truman." Part of the reason that the paper was willing to go to press without the final electoral tally was the anticipated effect of the Dixiecrat and Progressive (Henry Wallace) candidates on both the Southern and liberal elements of the Democratic Party. The final tally:
Thurmond carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.
- Harry S. Truman, Democratic 49.5%
- Thomas E. Dewey, Republican 45.1%
- Strom Thurmond, States' Rights 2.4%
- Henry A. Wallace, Progressive 2.4%
Strom Thurmond and the Civil Rights Act of 1957
The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was introduced and strongly supported by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX). It passed in spite of a filibuster led by Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC, who switched to R-SC in 1964), during which Thurmond spoke for a Senate record of 24 hours 18 minutes.
Debating the History
The History News Network of George Washington University, an online gathering of professional historians has a lively debate and numerous articles addressing the historical aspects of the Lott/Thurmond debate. Also note the debate "Was It a Crime to Have Supported the Dixiecrat Party?"
The ONLINE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER has extensive coverage of the Lott controversy. Tell us what you think on the message boards.
Lott's Record: A View from the Right
Dave Kopel of the NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE lays out the case for Lott's resignation.