How the KKK Helped Create the Solid GOP South

Researchers present evidence that the Klan, in the 1960s, effectively moved working-class Southern whites into the Republican column.
By Tom Jacobs , |

Ku Klux Klan members and a burning cross, Denver, Colorado, 1921. (Photo: The Library of Congress)

With this past weekend's loss by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, the Republican sweep of the South is now complete. As the Los Angeles Times notes, "Democrats, starting in January, will not control a single governorship, U.S. Senate seat, or legislative chamber from the Carolinas to Texas."

Most analysis of this trend echoes that of the Times reporter, who points out that "The realignment started as a backlash to the 1960s civil rights movement." But recently published research suggests the channeling of racist attitudes into changed voting behaviors did not happen naturally, or automatically. Rather, it was due in part to the efforts of one organization: the Ku Klux Klan.

"Klan activism loosened entrenched party loyalties and directly contributed to the dealignment of white voters from the Democratic Party in the 1960s," writes a research team led by sociologist Rory McVeigh of the University of Notre Dame. "This initial untethering process was critical to the more durable subsequent realignment with the Republican Party."

Using data from 10 Southern states, McVeigh and his colleagues noted which counties were targets of Klan organizing during the mid-1960s, a time when the openly racist organization was at its modern peak. These tended to fall into clusters, with large numbers in the Carolinas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

"Klan activism loosened entrenched party loyalties and directly contributed to the dealignment of white voters from the Democratic Party in the 1960s."

They then looked at county-wide votes in five presidential elections: Those of 1960, 1972, 1980, 1992, and 2000. Finally, they controlled for a variety of other factors that could influence voting patterns, including unemployment, median family income, and population change.

They found that, between 1960 and 1972, "the average increase in Republican voting in Klan counties was just over 2 percent higher than was the case in counties without a Klan organization."

"Although the magnitude of the difference is not dramatic, when aggregated across hundreds of Southern counties, the Klan influence reflects a rather substantial number of votes," the researchers add.

Looking at a longer period—between 1960s and 2000—they found that "Klan counties show an average 3.4 percent greater increase in Republican voting compared to non-Klan counties."

"Even after controlling for votes for [1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater and [1968 Independent presidential candidate George] Wallace, Klan counties show greater movement toward the Republican Party than do non-Klan counties," they conclude. "After the movement declined, its influence on presidential voting endured."

So what happened here, exactly? McVeigh and his colleagues note that, while the KKK received the most publicity for its violent tactics, it also invested "significant energy in attempting to influence voting outcomes."

The organization's "emphasis on evaluating and supporting candidates based on their 'authentic whiteness'—that is, their commitment to maintaining racial segregation—rather than their party ties signaled a significant departure for the South," the researchers write. "At nearly all of its nightly rallies throughout the mid-1960s, Klan speakers underscored the message that, as one member put it, 'If you don't believe in mixing races, we want to vote out all of these (Negro) lovers that we have in office."

In this way, they presented a compelling alternative to the traditional voting patterns of working-class Southern whites, and "provided a basis for altered patterns of party support" that have endured to this day.

So if Democrats really are dead in the South, as Michael Tomasky argues, part of the credit or blame belongs to the Klan. Burning crosses may be largely a thing of the past, but the smoke still lingers.

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