The States’ Rights Democratic Party, popularly known as the Dixiecrats, mounted an unsuccessful third-party bid for the presidency in 1948. This effort was rooted in opposition to the shift in the national Democratic Party’s stance on the issue of civil rights, making Arkansas an important battleground in the 1948 presidential election.
The combination of the fall 1947 release of the report of the President’s Commission on Civil Rights (titled “To Secure These Rights”), President Harry Truman’s January address on civil rights, and Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces served to bring the issue of race to the forefront of political concerns as 1948 elections approached. Also during this time, federal court rulings had invalidated the Democratic Party’s historic white primary. In response to this changing tide, a growing number of southern Democratic dissidents—including, quite prominently, Governor Ben Laney of Arkansas—spoke openly of mounting a third-party challenge. Southern leaders were convinced that the Democrats could not win the presidency without the traditional “Solid South,” the states of the former Confederacy that had historically been the core of the Democratic Party’s electoral base. Therefore, southern leaders hoped that they had the leverage to prevent the party from embracing a strong position on civil rights; it was a futile hope. Indeed, inspired by the passion of Minneapolis, Minnesota, mayor Hubert Humphrey, the delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, adopted a strong civil rights plank, one that was anathema to the southern delegates.
Refusing to support the platform or the president who was running on it, many southern delegates walked out of the convention in protest. However, they and their allies reconvened less than a week later in Birmingham, Alabama, in a gathering that revealed the competing forces that characterized the whole effort. Nowhere were these competing forces more evident than in the Arkansas Democratic Party. Indeed, as the meeting opened, Gov. Laney’s name was being prominently mentioned as the possible presidential nominee, despite the fact that he had left the Democratic convention saying that neither he nor any of his fellow state delegates would attend the meeting. However, in the middle of the train ride back to Arkansas, he reconsidered. Reversing course in St. Louis, Missouri, the governor arrived in Birmingham as the conference started, but reflective of his continuing ambivalence, he never left his hotel room and issued a statement formally withdrawing his name from consideration as a candidate while offering his view that, rather than pursuing a third-party challenge, Democrats should instead seek to defeat the civil rights planks through their state party organizations. With Laney firmly on the sidelines, the convention enthusiastically turned to Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its choice for president, with Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi getting the nod for vice president.
Recognizing the regional nature of their support, the Dixiecrats had no illusions about their national prospects, but having failed in their efforts to defeat a pro–civil rights platform, they sought now to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where they could extract concessions before determining the ultimate victor. At the same time, despite their nomination of a third-party ticket, Dixiecrat leaders—indeed, Democrats on all sides—recognized the region’s deep-seated loyalty to the Democratic Party and understood that the key to the Dixiecrats’ success would rest in the party’s ability to secure the designation as the actual Democratic Party on the November statewide ballots. Consequently, they quickly turned their attention to the individual states where those efforts would be undertaken.
Arkansas was an early and important battleground, as the end of the Laney’s term as governor opened the door not just for a changing of the guard but also for a full-scale discussion about the direction of the state’s party. Despite Laney’s early prominence in the movement, his later vacillation and indecision—based in part on his reading of the state’s political pulse—were more reflective of where the Arkansas Democratic Party stood. Too, the failure of Laney’s choice, Jack Holt, to beat Sid McMath in the Democratic primary reflected not only Laney’s dwindling influence in the state party machinery but also the lack of any strong sentiment for the Dixiecrat effort. At the same time, the importance the national movement attached to Arkansas was made clear when Gov. Thurmond journeyed to Marianna (Lee County) shortly before the state Democratic convention in late August to deliver his first major speech as the party’s official nominee. Notably, McMath refused to meet with Thurmond when he was in Marianna.
While Dixiecrat supporters had hoped that Thurmond’s appearance would sound the call and secure the needed ballot designation, the effort was unsuccessful. The state convention became a venue where McMath and Laney fought for the soul of the state’s Democratic Party. While the convention featured a lively address by the outgoing governor Laney, the newly minted gubernatorial nominee McMath expended considerable energy and political capital and utilized his existing and well-developed political organization to turn back the Dixiecrat threat. In his own address to the state convention, McMath expressed his appreciation to the delegates for their effort to save the party from disruption engineered by outside forces. With Truman as the designated Democratic nominee for president, a final campaign appearance by Thurmond in the week prior to the election only reaffirmed the Dixiecrats’ status as isolated outsiders.
In the end, it was only in those states in which Dixiecrats had secured the designation as the official Democratic Party candidates that they achieved victory or any substantive support. Arkansas was no different. While Governor Laney had put the state’s Democrats right in the middle of the early discussions and machinations from which the Dixiecrat effort sprung, when the votes were counted, the party’s electoral fortunes in the 1948 election (16.5 percent of the Arkansas popular vote) left it on par with Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party—a fringe party and a historical footnote. At the same time, while the Dixiecrat effort itself was unsuccessful in the short run (both nationally and in Arkansas), there can be little doubt that it played a substantive role in igniting and fostering the forces that would ultimately result, over the course of the next two generations, in a wholesale political realignment of the South.
For additional information:
Brown, Robert L. Defining Moments: Historic Decisions by Arkansas Governors from McMath through Huckabee. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2010.
Cohodas, Nadine. Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Crespino, Joseph. Strom Thurmond’s America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2012.
Donovan, Timothy P., Willard B. Gatewood Jr., and Jeannie M. Whayne, eds. The Governors of Arkansas: Essays in Political Biography, 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
Feldman, Glenn. The Great Melding: War, the Dixiecrat Rebellion, and the Southern Model for America’s New Conservatism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.
Fredrickson, Kari. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Lester, Jim. A Man for Arkansas: Sid McMath and the Southern Reform Tradition. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Co., 1976.
William H. Pruden III