The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Segregationist’ barely begins to describe the racist Dixiecrats that Joe Biden worked with in the Senate

Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden campaigns in Clinton, Iowa, June 12. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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Wil Haygood, a former Post reporter, is a visiting professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the author, most recently, of “Tigerland.”

Several days later, Joe Biden is still contending with the blowback that greeted his remarks at a fundraiser in New York City on Tuesday night extolling the “civility” of the Senate in the 1970s. The former vice president, now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, illustrated his point by talking about working cooperatively with segregationist Democratic senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia. Even if he “didn’t agree on much of anything” with those senators, Biden said, “we got things done.”

Biden’s tone-deaf comments at the Carlyle hotel prompted a hail of criticism, including from several campaign rivals, such as Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Biden so far has dug in, rebuffing calls for an apology and defending his civil rights record.

It might be helpful to know a bit more about “Dixiecrats,” the Southern Democratic politicians at mid-century whose numbers included Eastland and Talmadge. My journeys as a biographer have often taken me through the South, where I’ve combed archives of Dixiecrat politicians and met eyewitnesses to their reign. Referring to Dixiecrats as “segregationists,” as they have been called throughout the Biden controversy, doesn’t capture the ugliness of these white supremacists.

Dixiecrats were powerful men — some appeared on the covers of national magazines — and used their offices and distinguished titles to spread racial fear and thwart the aspirations of black Americans. And they did it relentlessly.

The term “Dixiecrat” emerged from the 1948 States’ Rights Democratic Party, a breakaway group of Southern Democrats who loathed the appeal to civil rights in the Democratic platform at the party’s national convention in Philadelphia in July 1948. The Dixiecrats held their own convention in Birmingham, Ala., a few days later, with 6,000 people attending from 13 Southern states. The goal was to win their states’ 127 electoral votes, deny a victory to Republican Thomas Dewey or the Democratic incumbent, Harry Truman, throw the election to the House and use their power to force the major parties to jettison their civil rights planks.

A taste of the Dixiecrats’ platform: “We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program.”

The party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates were South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond and Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright. Eastland, Biden’s future Senate collaborator, escorted Wright to the convention and earned Thurmond’s admiration. This from a letter I found in the Eastland archives, written to him by Thurmond: “You gave freely of your time and talents and I wish you to know that I am deeply grateful to you for the magnificent contribution you made to this great cause.” Actually, it was a lost cause, though the Dixiecrats did win four Southern states.

Though Talmadge was a repellent racist, whatever his civility as a senatorial colleague, Eastland was a particularly odious character. He made his reputation in Mississippi and in Washington by attacking black servicemen in World War II. Their medals for bravery meant nothing to him. “The Negro soldier was an utter and dismal failure in combat," Eastland said at war’s end.

In 1967, Eastland was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when just the sort of nightmare the Dixiecrats envisioned in 1948 loomed before him: Thurgood Marshall, an African American, had been nominated to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson. Eastland immediately began scheming with a powerful Democratic colleague and fellow segregationist, John McClellan of Arkansas, to sink Marshall’s prospects. Eastland leaned on McClellan during the confirmation hearings, believing that as a former racketeer-busting prosecutor, McClellan would be able to trip Marshall up during questioning. Eastland also hoped McClellan would use his law enforcement contacts to dig up dirt on the nominee.

Both strategies failed, though, and the aging Dixiecrats were outfoxed by Johnson as he shrewdly used the levers of the Senate to win Marshall’s confirmation, just as the president had maneuvered civil rights legislation through Congress.

When Biden joined the Senate in 1973, only a handful of Dixiecrats remained — Eastland would leave in 1978, Talmadge in 1981. Thurmond, the former States’ Rights Democratic presidential nominee, held on until 2003.

Yet today, few would deny that all the dust of the Dixiecrat movement has left this nation. The battles over the Confederate battle flag and Civil War monuments are reminders of a racist past that the Dixiecrats fervently defended. As Joe Biden discovered with his clumsy remarks last week, the history is still raw.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: Biden is a gaffe machine. His segregationists comments are just one example.

Eugene Robinson: Biden is being Biden. That’s a risk.

Greg Sargent: Joe Biden is badly undermining his ability to challenge Trump

The Post’s View: Biden, again, chose his words poorly. But his broader point was right.

Helaine Olen: Biden’s remarks to donors accidentally highlighted an important truth