It’s known as “The Big Switch.” That’s when Southern Democrat politicians converted to Republicanism and refashioned the G.O.P. into a racist political party.
The only problem? It’s not true. But first a little history.
The general narrative of this “switch” is capsulized in a 2017 History.com article. The 30-something author documented how the Democratic Party–known for its historic racism–split in 1948 when Harry S. Truman (D-MO) first “introduced a pro-civil rights platform” into the Democratic Party. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) and a faction of Southern Democrats, consequently, bolted from Democrats to create the “States Rights” (Dixiecrat) party. The author then states these Dixiecrats eventually converted to Republicanism–along with Thurmond–in 1964. Later, Nixon’s “southern strategy” and Reagan’s conservatism moved the Democratic “blue” South to become a firm “red” Republican in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, Democrats routinely finger Republicans as “racists,” pointing to occasional neo-Nazi politicians (David Duke, a one-term Louisiana state legislator), obscure racist organizations (Patriot Front) and Confederate flag-waving MAGA types. In fact, just wearing a MAGA hat is considered “racist” by many individuals on the left.
It’s a strong and divisive narrative…but what’s the TRUTH?
First of all, the “Dixiecrats,” under Strom Thurmond in 1948), did leave the Democratic Party…but for reasons more than racial. The Truman Administration–following sixteen years of Franklin D. Roosevelt–further desired to federalize and centralize government. The Southern Thurmond “Dixiecrats” believed in traditional “states’ rights” and segregation. The Northern and Western Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s was more “progressive” politically. President Roosevelt’s fascination with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and fascist government programs in Europe guided many of his domestic policies.
Consequently, the 1948 Truman-Democratic platform reflected more centralized and socialist government, thus angering and distancing Southern libertarians. That’s what really split the Democratic Party in 1948. In fact, in a platform that boasted 4,256 words only 106 (2.4%) were even devoted to civil rights (for the black or anyone else). Even more surprisingly was how the party of slavery, segregation, Ku Klux Klan and Confederate secession was quick to pat itself on the back in 1948. In their summary on civil rights the Democratic Party actually claimed it alone was “responsible for the great civil rights gains” and committed to “continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination.”
However, such 1940s political posturing is contradicted by a Jim Crow Democratic South that still lynched blacks, refused school, hotel, restaurant, transportation and restroom facilities to “coloreds” and rigged voting procedures to suppress the black ballot. Therefore, it’s hard to believe “great gains” were actually made by Democrats. Harry Truman was allegedly an inactive participant in the Missouri KKK, and biographers often noted his latent racism against blacks, Jews, Chinese and Japanese throughout his life. Meanwhile Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated a KKK member to the Supreme Court (Hugo Black), put Japanese-Americans into detention camps and refused to welcome black Olympians—including the famed Jesse Owens—to the White House.
The Dixiecrat exodus was, again, more about progressive, fascist, socialism than segregation and black civil rights. In the end, despite predictions of a Thomas Dewey victory, the Dixiecrat exodus produced little gain. Truman won the ’48 presidency in a landslide electoral college vote while the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond mustered an inconsequential 2.4% of the popular vote.
Secondly, the Dixiecrats did NOT convert to Republicanism in 1964 (after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act) as many historians and journalists now suggest. In fact, most of these racist libertarians returned to the Democratic Party after 1948 and became a significant voting block against civil rights and desegregation throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. According to one historical analysis, of the 1500+ racist “Dixiecrats” only Strom Thurmond and about a dozen others left the Democratic Party for the GOP (less than 1%). Furthermore, Thurmond didn’t switch parties until 16 years after Truman forced him to create his “Dixiecrat” party.
Thirdly, Southern whites (the people, not the politicians) did vote more REPUBLICAN in post-1965 elections, but not for racial reasons. Again, the Democratic Party was moving left, toward socialism, nonreligious/atheism and adopting liberal planks on abortion, women and gay rights. The Bible Belt South in the 1970s and 1980s became less racist as de-segregation and civil rights laws were enforced. Consequently, immigration to southern cities (Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Charlotte) by northern and western GOP conservatives rearranged the voting demographic. Southerners are more conservative and that’s why dozens of Democrats switched parties. Did you know notable Republicans Trent Lott, Mike Pence, William Bennett and Rick Perry were all previously Democrat? It’s true. And race was not the reason they switched affiliations…it was due to liberal/socialist policies.
Finally, the Republican Party and its leaders have consistently denounced and resisted the “alt right” ultra-conservative racist organizations. It’s why these racists formed their own political party in 2009 (The American Freedom Party). Republicans, historically, have always championed civil rights for the black and all ethnicities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed thanks to widespread Republican support (who had proposed similar legislation in the Eisenhower administration). All Southern Democrats (including those Dixiecrats) voted against it. Oh, and David Duke? He only identified as Republican when politically expedient. Otherwise, he’s been in the Democrat, Populist or Reformed camp.
Maybe instead of looking at the anomaly of Strom Thurmond, we should investigate the political expediency of another Democrat: Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) who spent 62 years in public office. Byrd served for over half a century at the national level, as a Representative and, later, a powerful Senator. Byrd died in office (2010) at the ripe age of 92. Hillary Clinton called Byrd a “friend and mentor.” Barack Obama noted how “the arc of his life bent toward justice.” The press gave him a blessed pass.
That’s because Robert Byrd proved a quintessential post-WW2 Democrat. Originally a member and leader of the Ku Klux Klan in West Virginia (an affiliation he later disavowed), Byrd refused to fight in World War 2 because it meant serving alongside blacks. He routinely voted with other segregationists in the 1950s. As a senator, Byrd filibustered and voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He abstained his vote for the 1965 Voting Act. He also voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.
This same Robert Byrd then politically transformed from a known racist to a beloved mentor. How? Simple. He towed the party line…for nearly 57 years! It’s possible to argue Byrd didn’t lose his racism but rather, like most good politicians, shelved it. He enjoyed his power and position. It wasn’t the first time Byrd did what was necessary. In fact, the whole reason Byrd initially joined the KKK was for “political power.” To his credit, he did leave the organization, but still it showed Byrd to be a political opportunist. Once in national office, at least until 1967 (when being a segregationist went out of fashion), he retained his racist roots. Byrd told a reporter: “Don’t get that albatross [the KKK] around your neck. Once you’ve made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena.”
It’s all politics. And it still is, for those who really listen close. It’s why we need to flip the script and tell the real story of what happened in 1948 and 1964.
I also believe America needs to echo, once again, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream and “look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
That’s what made America great…and will make America great again.
Dr. Rick Chromey is an author, historian and theologian who speaks and writes on matters of religion, culture, history, technology and leadership. He lives in Boise, ID. www.rickchromey.com
 “How The ‘Party of Lincoln’ Won Over the Once Democratic South” by Becky Little, August 18, 2017: https://www.history.com/news/how-the-party-of-lincoln-won-over-the-once-democratic-south
 Read the 1948 Democratic Platform: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/1948-democratic-party-platform
 Harry S. Truman’s racism was noted by historians and biographers. See “Truman’s Racist Talk Cited by Historian” (Seattle Times, November 3, 1991: https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19911103&slug=1314805) and “The Best Kind of Bigot: Harry Truman and His Hatreds” by Eric Fettman (New York Post, July 3, 2003: https://nypost.com/2003/07/31/the-best-kind-of-bigot-harry-truman-and-his-hatreds/).
 “Why Was Jesse Owens Deprived of Presidential Recognition,” The Telegraph, May 27, 2016: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/race/how-america-snubbed-jesse-owens/
 The 1948 Presidential Election: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_United_States_presidential_election
 “The Democrats’ Lott”. The Wall Street Journal. December 23, 2002: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1040607367889016753