The Dixiecrats were a right-wing faction of the Democratic Party that drew its support from southern states. Members formed their own political party in 1948 and supported a platform based on states' rights and southern cultural preservation, which included support for racial segregation. As a political party, the Dixiecrats dissipated following the 1948 presidential election.
History of the Democratic Party before 1948
The term "Democrat" in American politics extends back to the founding era when Thomas Jefferson and other anti-Federalists, or supporters of a small central government, began calling themselves Democratic-Republicans in 1798. Always disjointed by factions, in 1828 then-candidate Andrew Jackson unified and renamed the party the Democrats; it became the party's official name in 1844. The issue of extending slavery into western territories in the 1840s and 1850s, however, split the Democrats into northern and southern factions that favored states' rights to decide the slavery question and unlimited expansion, respectively. Southern Democrats were further isolated by the Republican-led Reconstruction after the Civil War, and later by northern Democrats' support for President Roosevelt's New Deal and for civil rights legislation during the 1920s through the1940s.
The Birth of the Dixiecrats
When the Democrats included support for a civil rights bill in their party's presidential convention platform in 1948, a group of right-wing Democrats from 13 states -- including South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and the rest of the American South -- splintered off and formed the States Rights Democratic Party, also called the Dixiecrats. Led by Strom Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, the Dixiecrats held a convention in Birmingham, Ala., where they presented their own political platform and elected Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright as their presidential candidate.
The Dixiecrat Platform
The Dixiecrats had three principal themes in their political platform that distinguished them from the Democratic Party. The first was a defense of states' rights. Dixiecrats believed in the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution and its protection against the meddling of the federal government in state government affairs, which they viewed the Democrats as doing with the New Deal and civil rights legislation. The second theme was the preservation of the southern states' cultural heritage, namely the racial status quo. This theme was intertwined with their third theme of opposing civil rights. The notion among Dixiecrats was that African-Americans were racially inferior. An end to segregation would therefore disrupt their proper social order, while civil rights legislation would only devastate the South's economy and politics through integrated workplaces and voting booths.
The Legacy of Dixiecrat Ideology
The Dixiecrats as a political party were essentially dismantled following the 1948 presidential election. Fielding Wallace, the States Rights Democratic Party candidate, won 2.4 percent of the popular vote, equating to a meager 39 votes in the Electoral College -- compared to Harry Truman's 303 electoral-vote victory. The Dixiecrat ideology, however, was carried on in Congress by a coalition of southern Democratic lawmakers. Under the continued leadership of now-Sen. Strom Thurmond, these pro-segregationists used obstructionist tactics such as filibusters to block civil rights legislation. Under the Democratic leadership of Pres. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) and his successor Lyndon Johnson, however, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and racial discrimination, including segregation, was officially outlawed. Seeing that the Democrats had become a liberal party on social reforms, Thurmond thus encouraged his coalition of southern lawmakers and Dixiecrat ideologues to leave the Democrats and instead join the increasingly conservative Republican Party.