Southern Democrats: Not What They Used To Be

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POLITICS AUGUST 3, 1968

Southern Democrats: Not What They Used To Be

Birmingham, Ala.—The test of the Democratic Party's willingness to cope effectively with racist politics in the Deep South in 1968 will center around the three-way fight shaping up for Alabama's one set of credentials at Chicago.

There will be major credentials challenges from other states, notably Mississippi, but only in Alabama do the options cover the field—from the Wallace-infested "regular" delegates elected in the spring primary, through an old-style "loyalist" group going under the name of the Alabama Independent Democrats (AID), to the National Democratic Party of Alabama, a vigorous "new politics" coalition to make a clean break with the past.

Since the 10 presidential electors named in the regular party primary in the spring ran pledged to George Wallace's candidacy, thus making it impossible for the "regulars" seeking credentials at Chicago to fulfill the first requirement of the convention call (that any delegation be able to "assure" that voters of their state will have an opportunity to vote for electors "pledged formally and in good conscience" to the presidential ticket) the 2,622 delegates in Chicago will be unable to ignore the challenges of AID and NDP.

NDP is the catalyst. Organized early this year, it distills, at a state level, the coalition the Kennedy-McCarthy bloc of the party has tried to put together at a national level—students, white and black; "black belt" Negroes, some of them officeholders themselves; old style white radicals, both from the cities and the old populist strongholds in northern Alabama; young professional men and women and upper-middle-class liberals out of the academic and scientific communities at Tuscaloosa and Huntsville.

NDP, unlike AID, isn't confining itself to sending a delegation to Chicago to challenge the "regulars" and offering a set of presidential electors to back it up. Instead, it promises to do battle in November for every office on the ballot from the courthouse to the White House and its leaders see a chance of electing at least one black man—the Rev. William Branch of Greene County in the 5th district—to Congress.

Black people, who put the only thing they had—their bodies—on the line time and again in the last decade to win the right not only to vote for sheriff but to make a clear choice on issues, have lost their patience over the last decade with the maneuver of old style "loyalists" such as are found in AID. There's evidence of this impatience to be found on every hand. In North Carolina, Dr. Reginald Hawkins, a Negro dentist, entered the Democratic gubernatorial primary against Lt. Gov. Robert L. Scott, a leading "moderate-to-liberal" politician of the old school. Negro leaders in Arkansas, annoyed at Sen. J. William Fulbright's consistent votes against civil rights legislation, are talking of sitting it out or voting for another candidate to force Senator Fulbright into a run-off.

In short, the old appeals of the "moderate-to-liberal" forces that comprise the "loyalist" wing of the party in most Southern states, including Alabama, are falling on deaf black ears. They are stubbornly deaf. And so responding to this new attitude (and generating it too), NDP challenges some basic assumptions that party "loyalists" have clung to as the proper way to handle (or, really, to avoid) a racist dialogue with the Wallace-oriented politicians of the Sixties. The AID position is rooted in the one-party politics of a region that, for 100 years, found its only national strength in the seniority of the men it sent to Congress. The new era of racism in the Sixties, represented now by George Wallace, combined with the shift of the South from an agrarian to an industrial base, has left the "loyalists" fighting a rearguard action to protect the men sent to Washington years earlier and the power they have accumulated. 

 

Only a decade ago, Alabama's congressional delegation was weighted with "economic" liberals—Senators Lister Hill and John J. Sparkman, Representatives Albert Rains and Carl Elliott. The "loyalist" strategy for '68 was devised to protect Senator Hill (letting him run on the same ticket with Wallace), who subsequently decided to retire, while providing a way for them and their friends to vote for a set of presidential electors pledged to the national ticket for the first time since 1952. This plan, which included qualifying AID and its 10 electors for the ballot, apparently received the blessing of the White House late in 1967.

At a meeting last December 26, Democratic State Chairman Robert Vance and David Vann, the organizer of AID, stood side by side to explain that the purpose of the new party was to give people a chance to vote for President Johnson. 

Vance guaranteed that the AID delegation would be seated in Chicago, because he'd made a deal with LBJ, but he told the group that he would deny it if they quoted him. Two of the men who later organized NDP, Dr. John Cashin, Jr., of Huntsville, NDP chairman, and Jim Evans, were present at the meeting, but only Evans was asked to leave—after he suggested that the Vance-Vann plan was a "move to allow Hill to run with Wallace." As Evans put it, the AID plan was and is a "single purpose party that will run no candidates and put black people in a little corner." 

Vance has since said he will challenge the credentials of all McCarthy delegates at Chicago, requiring from them a pledge to vote for the Democratic nominee in November. A 40-year-old Birmingham attorney, Vann is typical of the Southern "loyalists." He has fought the racists locally (he was active in the campaign to remove Eugene "Bull" Connor from power in Birmingham by changing the system of city government) but he shuns the idea of disturbing the courthouse circles, for that's "not good politics." He claims that Wallace's support in Alabama has softened, and that there is an outside chance of depriving him of a clear majority in his home state next fall—if local politicians are given a chance to ride back into office on Wallace's coattails, while privately backing AID's independent slate of electors. 

In fact, AID and NDP leaders would like to merge their slates of electors; indeed, NDP would have endorsed the AID electors at its July 20 state convention if state law had permitted it. But NDP isn't willing to give up its real goal: providing a choice up and down the ballot; and AID can't shake its devotion to the ties of the past. 

That NDP leaders are excited about the chances of the Rev. Mr. Branch, if he gets some financial help, tells something about the atmosphere in Alabama. The 5th district includes Tuscaloosa, where NDP has considerable support among faculty members and students at the University of Alabama; five "black belt" counties, in each of which black registration exceeds that of the whites; two precincts in Jefferson County (Birmingham), including some large black boxes, and several other predominantly white counties. Mr. Branch is in a four-way race for the seat Rep. Armistead Selden (D) relinquished to run for the Senate—against a Wallace-oriented Democrat, a Republican and a right wing "independent." Since the potential Negro vote is, realistically figured, between 30 and 40 percent, it is possible, at least on paper, for Branch to emerge with a plurality. 

But NDP, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, badly needs the blessing of the national party—to give it access to campaign funds, to lure candidates with statewide stature (one, ex-Attorney General Richmond Flowers is weighing a bid by NDP to be its Senate candidate). 

At this point, AID still commands the loyalty of many Negro leaders, particularly those in the Alabama Democratic Conference, part of the network set up in the South by Louis Martin for the Democratic National Committee; of labor leaders, whose effectiveness has been reduced almost to zero by Wallace's "populist" appeal; and of the large group of Birmingham attorneys who have managed to keep partial control of the regular party structure.

AID chairman Vann says he is getting "indirect cooperation" both from Vance, the regular state chairman, and a number of members of the "regular" party state executive committee which elected Vance, not a surprise considering Vance's original role. 

The response of the delegates to the national convention to the three-way challenge could set the pattern for Democratic politics in the South for the next decade. 

At a minimum, the Chicago convention, with the support of both Vice President Humphrey and Senator McCarthy, can be expected to seat the delegation of "Loyal Democrats of Mississippi," which is challenging Gov. John Bell Williams' hand-picked slate from neighboring Mississippi. Like AID, the Mississippi challengers do not plan to set up a separate party structure and run candidates for every office in the state, thus threatening the local political establishment. The Mississippi fight is not one the Vice President can duck. He must atone for his role in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) compromise of 1964, when he earned the right to be LBJ's running mate by keeping their challenge from getting to the convention floor, thus keeping intact a consensus politics in the very year the Democratic Party could have acted decisively without risking national defeat.  

Elsewhere in the South, Mr. Humphrey faces some awkward situations. The 11 states of the Confederacy will cast 527 of 2,622 votes at Chicago, most of which the Vice President's managers are counting on by at least the second ballot. A revolt, possibly prompting 300 to 400 Southern delegates to rally around the favorite son candidacy of Gov. John Connally of Texas, could be fatal to Humphrey. The political establishment in the South, despite its losses in recent years, will not tolerate too much interference with its way of doing things. Humphrey may feel bound to carry out LBJ's deals, as well as his Vietnam policies, which means supporting AID.  

For the McCarthy camp, the choices will not be as hard. It has stood aside from the old-style politics. The seating of NDP would bring a largely pro-McCarthy group (it had strong Kennedy elements) into the convention, whereas AID is expected to send a group dominated by Humphrey backers. (Both AID and NDP leaders have discouraged public expression of a preference by any of their delegates in an effort to keep the focus on the merits of their respective cases.)  

Confronted by a tidal wave of white racism, by the new intransigence of the blacks and their white liberal supporters and by the Republicans too, the old Democratic Party in the South may be losing its foothold. What happens if the political establishment rejects both the Alabama (either the NDP or AID) and Mississippi challenges in Chicago? Or insists on a pallid compromise such as the one forced on MFDP in 1964? In that event, the Democratic Party, nationally, will have served notice that it cannot cut its ties with the region's racist politics and will force those who want a clean break to find another political home, perhaps in a fourth party.  

Speaking at the NDP convention in Birmingham on July 20, the Rev. Mr. Ed King, MFDP national committeeman, said the 1964 compromise in Atlantic City "destroyed the finest generation of young people this country has ever seen." It was after this that SNCC turned to black power. In 1968, there is another chance to open the doors of the party to participation by all the people in the North, the South, the East and the West.

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posted in: politics, midterm elections, birmingham, chicago, huntsville, alabama, mississippi, alabama independent democrats, democratic party, david vann, george wallace, robert vance, william branch

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