Race and voting patterns in the Old South

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2010

Fifty years ago this week, I stood outside a public school in the lower-middle-class Ninth Ward of New Orleans and watched parents escort white students out as black children filed in under a federal court desegregation order.

Across the street, parents and other onlookers shouted racial epithets and jeered as deputy U.S. marshals led the children into the school. In Baton Rouge, the state capital, the legislature passed a series of retaliatory measures at the behest of Gov. Jimmie Davis that sought to take control of the schools from the elected school board.

Davis, best known for writing the song "You Are My Sunshine," had been elected by a mostly white electorate eager to maintain racial segregation. Similar forces put George Wallace into Alabama's governorship as the region's leadership pursued an aggressive response to the growing federal judicial and legislative drive to desegregate schools and other public facilities.

Over the next several years, open resistance diminished. The successful desegregation of elementary schools like the two in New Orleans and state universities and the enactment of sweeping federal civil rights legislation gave long-withheld rights to the region's African-Americans and set in motion the transformation of its politics.

Half a century later, last week's mid-term election results illustrate how much has changed in the 11 one-time Confederate states.

The old legal barriers no longer exist, though racial divisions persist. New Orleans' schools, abandoned by whites, are virtually segregated, like other cities north and south. The New Orleans public school system, 58 percent black at the time of desegregation, is now more than 90 percent black, a higher proportion than that of the city's majority-black population.

In a political sense, as Lyndon Johnson correctly predicted when he signed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the once solidly Democratic South has turned predominantly Republican.

But the pattern is more complex. On the state level, white Democrats have been mostly replaced by white Republicans. Black candidates have been unable to win major statewide offices, a pattern hardly unique to the South. But at the local level, many blacks have been elected, almost all as Democrats. Heavily Hispanic areas have elected Hispanic officials, including some Republicans.

In 1960, the 11 states sent 101 Democrats and seven Republicans, all white, to Congress, joining the region's 22 Democratic senators. One Republican was from Texas, Rep. Bruce Alger of Dallas.

Last week, the same states elected 86 Republicans, two black and five Hispanic, and 34 Democrats, 14 white, 16 black and four Hispanic. Of Texas' 32 U.S. House members, 23 will be Republicans. Sixteen of the region's 22 senators are Republican, as will be nine of 11 governors.

The Southern judges who made the key rulings ordering desegregation were mostly moderate Republicans appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower. But segregationists like Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led the swing to the GOP in the 1960s. Today's Southern GOP remains conservative, though not outwardly racist, and has largely failed to attract minority voters.

Democrats, whose Southern leaders once were openly racist, have reshaped their party with biracial coalitions made possible by the increased black turnout. That's how Democratic presidential candidates Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama withstood the GOP tide in some Southern states.

But as Republicans have taken control, they have sought to strengthen their position by taking advantage of legal requirements protecting minorities to create highly concentrated minority districts that limit Democrats' ability to benefit from biracial majorities.

That was one way the GOP's controversial 2003 congressional reapportionment in Texas eliminated five white Democratic House members. It's no accident that only two of the nine Democrats that won last week are white.

In Louisiana, the events of 1960 have cast a varied shadow. The Ninth Ward, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, is overwhelmingly black. The openly racist attitudes that marked desegregation there surfaced three decades later when nearby suburbs elected white supremacist David Duke to the state legislature.

Today, Louisiana has an Indian-American Republican as governor in Bobby Jindal. But he lost his initial bid by running poorly in northern Louisiana's onetime segregationist bastions.

The state's two top Democrats are children of one of the few legislators who opposed the segregationist tide in 1960, New Orleans state Rep. Maurice "Moon" Landrieu.

Biracial support helped him later win two terms as the city's mayor. Similar backing helped elect his daughter, Mary, to the Senate in 1996 and his son, Mitch, last year as New Orleans' mayor.

Southern whites now vote overwhelmingly Republican. But the growing numbers of black and Hispanic voters give Democrats a chance.

• Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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