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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 5/21/21

The Last Dixiecrat

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Senator Joe Manchin
Senator Joe Manchin
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In 1990, CNN talk show host Larry King, a consummate master of controversy, selected as his guest the openly racist US senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond. As was the tradition on King's show, the conversation would eventually give way to a few telephone calls from carefully selected viewers lending a town hall atmosphere to things.

One caller greeted Thurmond by saying, "I just wanted to thank you for helping to keep the Blacks down." Without hesitation but with a wry smile, Thurmond responded, "Well you're welcome, ahy think." It was a two-part answer in five words. Thanking the caller was an acknowledgment on national television that his supporters expected African American social suppression and that he was happy to oblige. The second part was a portable plausible denial. By saying "I think," he gave himself room to simply say he hadn't understood. Thurmond had, of course, understood perfectly.

It was a rare public display of a principle that had been central to Southern White politics since the Emancipation Proclamation: make absolutely certain former slaves will never stand as equals beside former masters.

In 1990, Thurmond spoke as a Republican, but in 1957 he stood on the floor of the Senate delivering his legendary filibuster speech in opposition to The Civil Rights Act of 1957 as a proud Democrat. More precisely, a defiant Dixiecrat. Seven years later, in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Thurmond would leave the Democratic Party for the Republican Party. Thus began the migration of the Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party that had been their home since the Civil War to the Republican Party, which remains their home to this day.

Thurmond was a segregationist but not an acknowledged member of the KKK. In West Virginia, there was another Democratic senator who openly admitted his ties to the Klan, Robert Byrd.

Robert Byrd was a member of the US Congress's KKK fraternity. Nearly a dozen members of Congress throughout history admitted or were verified to have had Klan affiliations, mostly senators and almost all Democrats. Byrd had the distinction of being the last member of the US Senate to admit Klan involvement.

What made Byrd such a compelling figure was his willingness to renounce the Klan and repudiate his own involvement in it openly and publicly. The transition was so complete that at the time of Byrd's death, the NAACP was moved to commend his willingness to accept change, saying, "Senator Byrd reflects the transformative power of this nation."

The term "Dixiecrat" always belied, even sanitized, the true nature of the beliefs held and policies advanced by those it referred to. A Dixiecrat was most usually an unapologetic racist, an ardent segregationist, and a proud practitioner of Jim Crow tactics, among other things.

But there was something else the Dixiecrats were sworn to defeat at all costs. The Democratic party had a right wing, but it also had a left, and the right was hell-bent on thwarting the left. As the left wing of the Democratic Party organized to get behind Civil Rights and voting rights, the right wing, the Dixiecrats, sought to derail their efforts with fervent zeal.

It wasn't until the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement's bold move to force the Democratic Party to choose between Dixiecrats and Black voters and their White liberal supporters that the moment of truth had come. Strom Thurmond refused to change and got off the Democratic bus. Robert Byrd stayed on the Democratic bus and began to accept change.

Senator Joe Manchin, like Robert Byrd, is a senator from the proud, former Confederate leaning state of West Virginia. He's not an overt racist or an avowed segregationist, but he does share one common cause with every Dixiecrat who came before him, the steadfast determination to stand in the way of northern liberal Democrats.

Every Democrat in the U.S. Senate has sponsored the Senate's version of the For the People Act except one, Joe Manchin. As the Republican legislatures across the nation race to enact a wave of voting restriction bills, Joe Manchin stands like a Southern Confederate officer in the center of a battlefield blocking the Northern Democratic counterattack. Not a Democrat to join the Democrats, but rather a Democrat to undermine and subvert Democrat efforts, from within their own ranks.

A reckoning is coming. The Republican new-era Jim Crow voting restriction laws are intended to cement White minority rule in America. Manchin's words say he doesn't support that, but his actions are 100 percent in line with Republican voter disenfranchisement efforts.

If the new Jim Crow laws succeed, Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress will likely be lost, as will the American Democratic-Republic as we know it. Will Joe Manchin follow the path of Strom Thurmond and the old Confederate Dixiecrats, or will he follow the path of his West Virginian predecessor Robert Byrd toward leadership, progress, and justice?

The Democrats are running out of time. If they fail to act, they will lose their majorities in both houses and the new era of Jim Crow will become the law of the land. Patience and collegiality with Joe Manchin is a luxury the Democrats can no longer afford.

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Marc Ash is the founder and former Executive Director of Truthout, now the founder, editor and publisher of Reader Supported News:

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