How the Black Vote Became a Monolith

Instead, Democratic national leadership made the first bold move. A year before the 1948 presidential election, noting the success of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal electoral coalition, a campaign-strategy memo drafted by Clark Clifford and James Rowe, advisers to President Truman, argued that “the Northern Negro voter today holds the balance of power in presidential elections for the simple arithmetical reason that the Negroes not only vote in a bloc but are geographically concentrated in pivotal, large and closely contested electoral states such as New York Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.” Truman’s decision to sign executive orders desegregating the military and the federal work force was an electoral broadside constructed, in part, to help win over the support of northern Black voters.

It worked. Truman won 77 percent of Black voters, and with them the Great Migration destination states of Illinois and Ohio by just a combined 40,000 votes — and these states’ electoral votes provided the margin of victory. The famous picture of the re-elected president holding up the erroneous newspaper headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” exists in large part because Dewey, the Republican governor of New York, with a solid record on civil rights, had grown suddenly lukewarm on the issue, making halfhearted appeals to Black voters in the North while increasing entreaties to white conservatives in the South.

The election outcome was proof of the new electoral advantage Black solidarity offered a party willing to deliver racially progressive policies. And the decision of many Southern Democrats, upset with the party’s formal embrace of civil rights at that year’s Democratic National Convention, to mount a third-party presidential bid that year hinted that an opposing bloc of increasingly disgruntled white segregationists was shopping for a new home.

The Democrats’ and Republicans’ national platforms in this period often addressed civil rights in nearly equal measure, and sometimes Republicans were more progressive on the question. President Dwight Eisenhower declared in the 1950s that racial segregation harmed the nation’s security interests. Deploying the 101st Airborne to enforce the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957, he warned that “our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our whole nation.” Richard Nixon held positions on civil rights similar to John F. Kennedy’s during the 1960 presidential campaign, and won nearly a third of the Black vote that year (though in the South, where the majority of the Black population still lived, Black voters were effectively barred from the polls).

It was the last time a Republican would win more than 15 percent of the Black vote in a presidential election. Stumping for Nixon in 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican, declared that “there’s hardly enough difference between Republican conservatives and the Southern Democrats to put a piece of paper between.” When Goldwater became the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and voiced his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, Black voters bunched themselves into the Democratic Party for good, supporting Lyndon Johnson at a rate comparable with Barack Obama’s nearly a half-century later.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, meanwhile, greatly expanded the Black electorate — voter-registration rates among nonwhites leapt to 59.8 percent in 1967 from 6.7 percent in Mississippi; to 51.6 percent from 19.3 percent in Alabama; and to 52.6 percent from 27.4 percent in Georgia. Black turnout soared. And George Wallace’s third-party candidacy for president in 1968, running on a segregation platform and winning five states in the process, was the last gasp for segregationists operating outside of the two-party system.

Within a decade, white Southern Democrats were responding favorably to the appeals of the Republican Party. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” refrain and Ronald Reagan’s renewed call for “states’ rights” were racialized, implicitly communicating opposition to progressive policies like busing and tapping into anxieties about a rapidly integrating society. With explicitly racist appeals now socially taboo, symbolic and ostensibly colorblind gestures made the transition easier by reframing the race question as one about free-market principles, personal responsibility and government nonintervention. Racial segregation could be achieved without openly championing it; the social hierarchy maintained without evangelizing it. American voters, Black and white alike, got the message.