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Nixon in Dixie

Our most maligned president was no racist.
Richard Nixon meeting with black appointees

The most memorable rally of 1966 was held at the Wade Hampton Hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, an all-male event with everyone crowded together, standing near the stage in a smoke-filled room. The speakers were Nixon, Strom Thurmond, and Albert Watson, who won in a special election in June 1965 to become the first Republican in the 20th century to represent South Carolina in the House of Representatives.

It was boisterous and raucous and the response to all three speakers was thunderous. Nixon outdid himself. Strom outdid Nixon. Watson outdid both. With a deep, powerful voice he was shouting at the close, “Freedom is not free!” It was unlike any rally I had witnessed. When it was over I was waiting outside in the hall. Nixon came out sweating and smiling. That it had been a tremendous show was written all over him. “This is where the energy is!” said Nixon. “This is where the future of the party is!” The story of 1966, he told a larger gathering at the hotel, will be the “resurgence of the Republican Party in the United States … and the headline on that story will tell of the coming of age of the GOP in the South.”

Among the malevolent myths about Nixon is that he set out to build the Republican Party in Dixie on a foundation of racism. That is not the man I knew and it is the antithesis of what I saw. While Nixon approved of my writings on law and order, he expressed an emotional empathy with black Americans. It was in his DNA. His Quaker mother’s family had been active in the Underground Railroad in Indiana. On coming to Congress he agreed to Adam Clayton Powell’s request to be part of a five-man team that would take the floor to answer the racist rants of Mississippi’s John Rankin. His record as vice president, working behind the scenes for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, for which Dr. King sent him a personal letter of gratitude, marked him as a progressive. I recall him storming out of his office in a rage one morning over a story he had read about an Alabama town that had refused to bury a black soldier killed in Vietnam in its whites-only cemetery. Have a statement ready for me when I get back from lunch, he ordered.

Let me make some calls first, I replied. The story did not ring true. Southern respect for martial valor would not abide this. I called the mayor. He told me his town had been slandered. There was no room in the white cemetery to bury anyone. The town had offered to pay the full funeral costs of their soldier son. Researching the Web half a century later, I found the story of Jimmy Williams of Wetumpka, Alabama, a black soldier and Green Beret who, it was said, was to be buried in a pauper’s grave in June 1966 but would be laid to rest one hundred miles away in the military cemetery at Andersonville, Georgia, site of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. Where the truth of this story, now half a century old, lies, I do not know. But this I do know: Nixon’s visceral recoil at what he thought was a moral outrage was genuine and unforgettable.

One of the first of the monthly columns I wrote with Nixon, which was carried nationally and in the Washington Post on May 8, 1966, described the Republican opportunity in the South as “a golden one; but Republicans must not go prospecting for the fool’s gold of racist votes. Southern Republicans must not climb aboard the sinking ship of racial injustice. They should let Southern Democrats sink with it as they have sailed with it.”

The Democratic Party in the South has ridden to power for a century on an annual tide of racist oratory. The Democratic Party is the party that rides with the hounds in the North and the hares in the South. The Republicans, as the South’s party of the future, should reject this hypocritical policy of the past.

Nixon quoted Democratic Senator Lister Hill of Alabama, who said that “if it hadn’t been for Republicans, we would still be talking [in the Senate]. If the Republican members had voted with the South, none of that [civil rights] legislation would have been passed.”

“Senator Hill is correct,” Nixon wrote. Republicans were decisive in passing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. And Republicans “should adhere to the principles of the party of Lincoln … and leave it to the George Wallaces and Lister Hills to squeeze the last ounces of political juice from the rotting fruit of racial injustice.”

On a June tour of the South, columnist Charles Bartlett, a friend of JFK, wrote that Nixon’s line in Jackson, Mississippi, that Southern Republicans must not “climb aboard the sinking ship of racial injustice,” had “served to make the moderates bolder.”

In 1966 Nixon went south for Congressman Howard “Bo” Callaway, running for governor of Georgia against Lester Maddox, and Congressman Jim Martin, running against Lurleen Wallace, wife of George, for governor of Alabama. David Broder caught up with Nixon in Bakersfield, California, October 20, where we were campaigning for congressional candidate Bob Matthias, the two-time decathlon gold medalist and star of the ’48 Olympics where he first achieved national glory at age 17. Broder had a front-page Washington Post story the next morning, headlined “Administration Challenged by Nixon to Repudiate Racists Seeking Office.” Broder’s story began:

Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon stumped through California today, challenging the Johnson Administration to repudiate racist Democratic candidates. …

“I have yet to find a Republican candidate anywhere who is campaigning on the white backlash,” Nixon said. “It is time for the national Democratic leadership and the Johnson administration to make it clear whether it is going into the South as the party of Maddox, Mahoney and Wallace.”

At this time Nixon was being pushed to make Maddox, Mahoney, and Wallace a central issue of the campaign by issuing a statement demanding that President Johnson “purge the demagogues” from the Democratic Party. Nixon asked me to think it over and work something up. I memoed back that I had “reservations” and thought that throwing the gauntlet down to the president could backfire.

All these guys you name are running on anti-LBJ campaigns. With the possible exception of Mahoney, they are gutting Johnson every day. They are thus unconscious allies in one respect, and if we slam them they will simply turn around and start slamming us as well. This statement would be warmly received in Manhattan, but I really wonder how the South will view it.

To date they [Wallace and Maddox] haven’t said anything for us or against us at all. That’s fine with me. It seems that today there is really hardly anybody down [South] who dislikes RN. There will be a good number of solid Nixon-haters after this statement.

McWhorter agreed. There was a danger that any such demand upon the President would backfire. Should LBJ accede to Nixon’s demand, and declare Lester Maddox and Lurleen Wallace extra ecclesiam, Lester and Lurleen would win in landslides. Nixon would be blamed for killing two viable GOP candidates in Georgia and Alabama. This was tricky business, and as I wrote Nixon there was another consideration—1968:

Wallace is the symbol of Southern resistance to Washington in the South, just as we would like to be the symbol of resistance to Washington and its policies in the nation. We will want, I would think, the people who are supporting Wallace now to be in our corner perhaps later.

Besides, George Wallace is one hell of a popular man in the South right now. As the Governor of Arkansas said two weeks ago, “If George Wallace ran for President right now, we wouldn’t have to count the votes, we could just weigh them.”

We did not make Wallace and Maddox a central issue, but neither did we ignore them. In yet another attack on the Democratic Party, on October 30, in a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance, Nixon wrote, “Below the Mason-Dixon line, the party of Jefferson, Jackson and Wilson has become the party of Maddox, Mahoney and Wallace.”

Mahoney was George P. Mahoney, no true Dixiecrat, but a blue-collar Irish Catholic and perennial candidate now running for governor of Maryland on the anti-open housing slogan “Your home is your castle!” His opponent was Baltimore County Supervisor Spiro T. (Ted) Agnew. Taking on the national Democrats for their silent complicity in race-based campaigns being run by their Dixiecrat colleagues, Nixon wrote:

Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey have not lifted a finger or invested an ounce of their political prestige to prevent this seizure of their party in the South by the lineal descendants of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and Theodore Bilbo. They have allowed it to become a party in which Bull Connor is completely at home.

Boosting Win Rockefeller for governor of Arkansas, Nixon added, “[T]he Democratic Party has dredged through the early novels of William Faulkner to come up with its Snopesian candidate, Jim Johnson, whose racial views make incumbent Governor Orval Faubus, by contrast, a flaming liberal.” The new Republican Party in the South should rest, said Nixon, “on four pillars: human rights, states’ rights, private enterprise and a foreign policy of peace without appeasement.” To those who call “states’ rights” code for “segregation,” he added, “Republicans have rejected the old concept of states’ rights as instruments of reaction and accepted a new concept: States’ rights as instruments of progress.” This means states assuming their responsibilities “in the fields of health, transportation, education and welfare.”

Summarizing his views, Nixon repeated lines we had used in May: about leaving it to “Maddox and Wallace to squeeze the last ounces of political juice from the rotting fruit of racial injustice.”

This column, released on October 30, was carried in dozens of newspapers across the country, from the Philadelphia Bulletin to the Los Angeles Times. McWhorter, a passionate champion of civil rights, came around to say he was impressed. Some biographers, seeking to portray Nixon as “playing the race card,” have ignored both of these nationally syndicated columns.

Just days after the May column appeared, Nixon received a letter of congratulations from Al Abrahams, executive director of Republicans for Progress, which had just produced, with another liberal group, Republican Advance at Yale, a Southern Project Report. These liberal Republicans did not like the way the party was evolving in the South, and had 10 hard recommendations, some of them demands, to be made on state parties by the Republican National Committee. Roscoe Drummond, a columnist Nixon admired, hailed the report. David Broder, then of the New York Times, led his story on the report by writing, “Two liberal Republican groups urged the Republican National Committee today to help register Southern Negroes and to discipline ‘lily-white’ GOP organizations in the South.” The report, he went on, “produced a cautious reaction from National Committee officials and immediate condemnation from some Southern state G.O.P. chairmen, presaging a major intraparty debate.”

I wrote Nixon a cover memo and stapled it to the report. There is “much good material” here, I said, but the “recommendations don’t seem very practical.”

It is a matter of simple fact that the vast majority of Southerners (white) believe in segregation of the races if not by law, certainly by personal choice.

These recommendations are going to bring no one racing to the Republican banners, but if carried out they would succeed in antagonizing and angering a lot of Southerners. For what?

I think your position is correct. Tell the Southerners what your principles are on human rights, fight for those principles in party councils, but take no part in any effort to purge the party of all who oppose integration.

I told him that, looking first at the report, then at our column, “I think the column looks quite good.” Nixon wrote back on my memo, “I agree.” File the report, he wrote.

That was half a century ago. Our approach was right. Wallace would sweep the Deep South in 1968. But we would carry Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee. Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, George H. W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush in 2004 would sweep all 11 states of the old Confederacy. Wilson and FDR had carried the same 11 states all six times they ran—but had done so in open collusion with some of the most rabid segregationists in American history. Even Adlai, who had carried the five states of the Deep South plus North Carolina and Arkansas in 1952, did so by putting on his ticket Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, a future signer of the Southern Manifesto.


What was the Southern Manifesto? This declaration was written in 1956 by Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Richard Russell of Georgia and signed by all but three of the 22 senators from the 11 states of the old Confederacy. Nonsigners were Al Gore, Sr., and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and Lyndon Johnson of Texas. The congressional delegations from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia all signed unanimously. Only two Republican House members were among the 99 congressional signatories.

What did it say? The Southern Manifesto charged the Supreme Court with a “clear abuse of judicial power” in the Brown decision desegregating the public schools in 1954. The court, declared these “Dixiecrat” senators and congressmen, had substituted “naked power for established law.”

This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.

The manifesto pledged the use of “all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this [Brown] decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.” In solidarity with this stand, Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia declared a state policy of “massive resistance” to desegregation in 1956. Governor Orval Faubus would block the entry of black teenagers to Little Rock Central High in 1957. Governors Ross Barnett and George Wallace would resist the integration of their state universities in 1962 and 1963. All were Democrats. Liberal hypocrisy in decrying Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” after a century of liberal collusion with Dixiecrats denying Southern Negroes their civil rights, does not cease to amaze.

What the Left never understood, or would never accept, is that Nixon brought the South into the Republican column not because he shared their views on segregation or civil rights. He did not. What we shared was the South’s contempt for a liberal press and hypocritical Democratic Party that had coexisted happily with Dixiecrats for a century but got religion when conservative Republicans began to steal the South away from them.

The Goldwater-Nixon party in which I enlisted was not a segregationist party but a conservative party. Virtually every segregationist in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and every Klansman from 1865 to 1965, belonged to the party of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

Patrick J. Buchanan is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

Excerpted from the book The Greatest Comeback by Patrick J. Buchanan. Copyright © 2014 by Patrick J. Buchanan. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House LLC.



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