D’Souza: The Big Switch, Part 2

From pages 117 – 120 of Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party


Progressive historiography relies on the claim that there was an historic big switch: Democrats saw the light and became champions of equality, while the racists in the Democratic Party became Republicans. Look, progressives say, at a segregationist like Strom Thurmond. Thurmond once ran for president on the Dixiecrat platform. Then he switched parties and became a Republican. Here is a classic example of the switch in action.

The switch narrative is supported by two important pieces of evidence. First, blacks, who used to vote Republican, now vote Democratic. This would seem to prove that whatever its past, the Democratic Party is now the party of racial justice. Second, the Civil Rights Movement was championed by a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, and supported by progressives like Martin Luther King. From this perspective, Republicans are, at least since the 1960s, enemies of civil rights.

The switch narrative, plausible at first glance, becomes problematic when we realize that the Thurmond case is anomalous. The Dixiecrats emerged from the Democratic Party and they returned to it after the presidential election of 1948. Thurmond did not become a Republican until 1964, and he was virtually alone among his Democratic colleagues in changing parties.

Southern Democrats throughout the 1960s remained the party of segregation, and three of the most nationally prominent southern Democrats of the postwar era, President Harry Truman, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, were former members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Later I’ll say more about Black, but here I want to focus on Truman and Byrd. Some historians today downplay Truman’s Klan membership, insisting that he did little more than pay his membership fee and quit the group shortly thereafter, reportedly because of its antagonism to Catholics.

This attempt to exculpate Truman is too hasty, however. In researching Truman, historian William Leuchtenburg recently uncovered some very interesting statements by the former Democratic president. In 1911, Truman wrote his future wife Bess, “I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman.”

Truman added, “Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud, then He threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice, I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.”

More than twenty-five years later, as a U.S. senator from Missouri, Truman wrote a letter to his daughter calling White House waiters “an army of coons.” In another letter to Bess in 1939, Truman used the phrase “nigger picnic day.” In an interview with a reporter in 1963, he asked, “Would you want your daughter to marry a negro?” This is the same Harry Truman who gets credit from progressives for desegregating the armed forces, typically without any mention of what he really thought about blacks. 4

Byrd joined the Klan at age twenty-four. In the early 1940s he organized a 150-member chapter or Klavern in Sophia, West Virginia, and was chosen as its leader. In later years, Byrd admitted it was Joel Baskin, Grand Dragon of the Klan, who advised him to go into politics. “Suddenly lights flashed in my mind,” Byrd later wrote. “Someone important had recognized my abilities.”

During World War II, Byrd wrote Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi that he would not join the U.S. military because he refused to fight alongside black people. “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.” 5

Byrd’s racist past wasn’t a youthful flirtation. More than two decades later, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by speaking on the Senate floor for fourteen hours. Byrd also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet Byrd became a revered figure in Democratic politics, endorsing Obama and eventually winning a 100 percent approval rating from the NAACP. When he died in 2010, media reports made only a bare mention of his KKK membership and opposition to civil rights. Hillary Clinton issued a statement praising her “friend and mentor” Robert Byrd.

Bill Clinton and Obama were at his memorial service. Obama emphasized how much Byrd learned and changed, noting that “the arc of his life bent toward justice.” Here is another version of the progressive switch narrative. Byrd is presented as a living example of a bad southerner who became a good Democrat. He grew. He learned. He became one of us. To a point, I agree. But what exactly Byrd learned Obama did not specify. In this chapter, I will.

Bill Clinton, the only speaker to directly address Byrd’s KKK association, dismissed it. “What does that mean? I’ll tell you what it means. He was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia. He was trying to get elected.” This is revealing. Clinton admits that in some states Klan membership was a political asset—perhaps even a political requirement—for success in the Democratic Party. 6

Yes, people can change. But I find it bizarre, to put it mildly, that men like Byrd made such a seamless transition from being in the Klan to being champions of civil rights. It’s equally strange that a party long devoted to owning and subjugating blacks and other minorities would suddenly become the dedicated advocate of equal rights and social justice. When reversals of this magnitude occur—and they do occur—some sort of moral accounting is required.

Consider the example of Whittaker Chambers, who used to be a communist but then became an anti-communist. Chambers didn’t just leapfrog from one to the other. He produced a massive work, Witness, in which he searchingly examined what attracted him to communism, what he saw in the Communist Party, how he became disenchanted, why he left the party, how he exposed Alger Hiss as a communist spy, and why ultimately he feared, wrongly as it turned out, that he was joining the “losing side.” Where are the comparable accounts for why Truman, Black, and Byrd went from being Klansmen to being champions of civil rights?

Where is the Democratic Party’s story of how it went through soul-searching in order to achieve moral conversion? These accounts simply do not exist. There seems to have been no soul-searching, raising the question of whether there was in fact a conversion. This too-easy progressive switch story raised my suspicion. I decided to look into it, and discovered it was largely bogus.

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