John Ed Pearce, October 18, 1948

Saturday’s release of the Knowledge Networks – Associated Press – Yahoo News poll, the net result of which is that deep-seated anti-black racism in the United States could cost the Black Candidate the White House "if the election is close" (see "Racial views steer some white Dems away from Obama"), calls to mind a classic commentary from an old Louisville Courier-Journal reporter and commentator, John Ed Pearce.  

I’ve been wanting to post Pearce’s remarkable assessment of what it was like for him to sit through States Rights Party (i.e., "Dixiecrat") campaign rallies in the waning weeks of the 1948 presidential election between the Democratic incumbent, Harry Truman, and his Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey, ever since I got my hands on a copy of it via the archivists at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, back in July.  Today’s AP - Yahoo poll finally gives me cause. 

The "Dixiecrats" were not just a third-party formation, but a "reactionary protest organization comprised of economically conservative, segregationist southern Democrats who sought to reclaim their former prestige and ideological prominence in a party that had moved away from them," historian Kari Frederickson writes in her invaluable The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).  "Not surprisingly, maintenance of white supremacy was the area’s primary political concern….The ability of whites in the Black Belt [i.e., those regions of the old Confederate States where blacks comprised a numerical majority] to enforce regional conformity on the race issue in national politics became the South’s best protection against federal interference in racial matters."

"Local control," Frederickson continues, with the idea of states’ rights in mind, "racial and economic, became the catch phrase of the conservative elite.  The Dixiecrats reserved their strongest criticism for the proposed permanent [Fair Employment Practices Commission], which would outlaw discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.  To them, the FEPC violated every concept of the right of employers under the Constitution because it would remove from them decisions regarding hiring and firing and, instead, would dispatch a veritable army of federal agents throughout the South to ensure that blacks were employed in every enterprise. Out on the stump, Dixiecrat supporters regularly distorted the goals of the FEPC, equating fair hiring practices with racial quotas."


Zeroing-in-on the triggering events of the year 1948, Frederickson explains that as the Progressive Party presidential candidate "[Henry] Wallace threatened to lop off the [Democratic] party’s left wing" during the upcoming election, Truman’s advisors concluded that "Truman would have to appeal to labor and minority voters," and that black voters "might hold the balance of power in key northern cities and that there were enough black voters in fifteen northern states to swing [the then-necessary] 277 electoral votes.  In order to win those states, Truman would need to make a renewed and stronger commitment to civil rights."  As a consequence, Truman proposed a modest 10-point civil rights program that included monitoring and enforcement by the federal Government, an idea dreaded across the South, as well as "federal protection for voting [rights] and against lynching," and the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Commission "to prevent unfair discrimination."  By the spring of 1948, "The white South responded shrilly and…in unison."  The formation of the States Rights or Dixiecrat Party was the outcome.


What follows is the first and only page that the archivists at the Truman Presidential Library could locate of John Ed Pearce’s priceless commentary for the Louisville Courier-Journal (October 18, 1948).  There is no telling how much of Pearce’s original from the carry-over-page is missing here.  But the original copy is located in the Dixiecrat file of the newspaper clippings section of the Democratic National Committee Records held by the Library.




Dixiecrats Cloak Their Ambition
With a Show of Southern Piety

Behind the Thurmond demand
for State Rights, two real
issues lie hidden

By John Ed Pearce
Courier-Journal Staff Writer



There were no fiery crosses burned here when J. Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat Presidential nominee, came to town.  No white-robed Klansmen rode to the public meeting here, nor to the one in Lexington.  On the contrary, they were orderly gatherings in which a few hundred people listened and cheered while Mr. Thurmond warned of the threat to States Rights and promised to protect Southern Tradition against Communism, greed in Washington, and a mixing of the races.


          A Dixiecrat meeting is the strangest type of political gathering of our time, if indeed it can be called a political gathering.  The present is a time for the most momentous political decisions of our history.   The issues of labor, conservation, flood control, public power, public lands, tidelands, oil, tariffs, wages, inflation, housing, and the frightening question of foreign policy must be studied and decided by the political candidate.


          But not by Mr. Thurmond.  For him, these issues simply do not exist.  Judging from his addresses in Kentucky, the one burning issue in our world today is that of States Rights.  The rest are not even worthy of his mention.  Not once in his talks here and in Lexington did the chief Dixiecrat refer to any problem, foreign or domestic, other than the threat to local self-government by the vote-crazed politicians of other parties, and the iniquity of the F.E.P.C. with which Truman and Dewey would destroy the American way of life.


          The Dixiecrats and Mr. Thurmond could be largely forgiven the silliness of their movement if one could believe that their incessant prating of States Rights was based on nothing more evil than a desire to cling to a dream of the Old South.  For the problems of the South are more complex and difficult, especially for those who must continue to live in the South, than is imagined by those who see its evils from the outside.  And even among the most earnest liberals of the South is a sincere doubt of the wisdom of Federal imposition of a Fair Employment Practices Commission on a people whose hatred of the Negro has been enlarged, ingrained and exploited for generations by politicians and industrialists who see in the system of segregation a vast cheap labor pool, and a source of endless political profit.


          But this constant stream of States Rights and the horrors of F.E.P.C. is the shallowest sort of sham.  There is too much evidence that the Dixiecrats — organizers, backers, listeners and principals — have no honest concern for the entire field of States Rights.  For 16 years the South has eagerly abetted such "invasions of States Rights" as R.E.A., T.V.A., Federal road projects, public works, aid to farmers, flood control, school lunch programs and the dozens of measures by which the States have fed at the Federal trough.  Southern legislators in Washington have voted for Federal aid to education and health with more consistency than the representatives of any other section.


          States Rights is the issue only insofar as it concerns the rights of States to solve — or refuse to solve — their race problems.  The real issue is one word, and that word is never spoken.  It is one thought, and that thought is never expressed.


The issue is Nigger.


          Not Negro; not the 14,000,000 citizens of our democracy who are trying to raise themselves to a higher standard of life and living through the equal rights and opportunities guaranteed them by our Constitution.  Not the people who are striving against disheartening odds to take a decent, respectable place in society, despite the efforts of those who object to their differences in skin coloration.


          The issue is not the Negro, the human being who exists and struggles.  It is Nigger, that non-existent creature which lives only in the hate-filled minds that conceived it.  The word is never spoken, yet it hangs in the air, sweaty, rancid, brutish, hulking and menacing, bespeaking the fear and ignorance of the minds that bore it.  On the platform Mr. Thurmond and his fellow traveler shout of Americanism, our way of life, the right to choose one’s associates, Communism, Reds.  But they mean Nigger.


          Mr. Thurmond, of course, never says the word; he’s not the type.  And it is comical to listen as he tiptoes around the issue, like an old-fashioned father trying to explain sex to his son without saying the words.  He creeps up close to the issue, sidles in with an innuendo, and then eases past the danger point with a side-step and a show of studious piety.


          It is as obvious and awkward an effort as that of a man trying to get his shoes off and get into bed without waking his wife.  Not that he’s fooling the audience.  They know what he’s talking about.  They know and they love it.  They came to hear him preach segregation, the right of the white man to "keep the Negro in his place," the right of the South to "handle its own problems."


          They string along with his platitudes, just as they string along with the advice of underlings who caution against intolerance, but they don’t take it seriously.  No sooner had Orval Baylor warned the Louisville audience to beware of race friction and intolerance than a committeeman waddled down from the speakers’ platform and ordered from the floor two Negro reporters who were sitting in the same room with the white people (though apart from them).


          J. Strom Thurmond never utters the coarse words they would like to hear, but they know what he means.  It is as though he were whistling the tune of a dirty song, to which the audience knows the dirty words.  Mr. Thurmond never says the dirty words, but his listeners laugh and slap their thighs when he reaches the part where the dirty words are supposed to be.  "Catering to minority groups," he says, but . . . [*]


[*] The original Louisville Courier-Journal clipping cuts-off here.  The carry-over page is missing.


"Racial views steer some white Dems away from Obama," Ron Fournier and Trevor Tompson, Associated Press, September 20, 2008

Platform of the States Rights Democratic Party (i.e., Dixiecrats), adopted in Oklahoma City, August 14, 1948 (as posted to the website of the American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara).

"Great White Hope," ZNet, August 16, 2004 (though please note that the original formatting is almost 99% missing, and therefore quite a mess).

"Jeremiah Wright in the Propaganda System," Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, Monthly Review, September, 2008


Leave a comment