Has the 'Southern strategy' reached the end of the road?

Jack Bass

January 23, 1991|By Jack Bass

OXFORD, MISS. — THREE seemingly unconnected events may push the Bush administration into significant policy changes on civil rights and signal an end to the Republican "Southern strategy" that began three decades ago.

In 1961 Sen. Barry Goldwater first articulated this policy when he told Southern Republican leaders in Atlanta, "We're not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 or 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are."

He then spelled it out. "I would not like to see my party assume it is the role of the federal government to enforce integration in the schools."

From there it's been a straight line: Richard Nixon's anti-busing stance, Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens," George Bush's invocation of Willie Horton and his veto of the civil rights bill over the issue of quotas.

What indicates that the Republicans may be due for a change?

First, the self-removal of William Bennett as chairman of the Republican National Committee blots out that former drug czar's apparent plan to bluster against affirmative action. Intended or not, Bennett could have led the party on the course set by such Republicans as Louisiana legislator and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.

Southerner Lee Atwater, before he resigned as party head for medical reasons, had already recognized that blacks, voting almost solidly Democratic in the post-Voting Rights Act South, were tipping state elections against Republicans. A Republican capable of cultivating 15 percent to 20 percent of that vote, such as Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ran unopposed for re-election in 1990.

The second event was sparked by assistant education secretary Michael Williams' announcement in December that colleges could no longer reserve scholarships specified for minorities. When the implication of the rhetoric was spelled out in the reality of policy, the White House reacted to the resultant outcry by rushing to get that genie back into the bottle.

The final event, and perhaps the most important, is the selection of Lamar Alexander as secretary of education. President of the University of Tennessee and that state's former two-term governor, Alexander shares with former Sen. Howard Baker a tradition of "mountain republicanism." Their political roots date back to support of the Union during the Civil War. Alexander's heritage or racial issues derive from Abraham Lincoln rather than Goldwater.

Alexander also was a protege of and former law clerk to Judge John Minor Wisdom on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Wisdom and fellow Republicans Elbert P. Tuttle, John R. Brown and Frank M. Johnson Jr., all of whom continue to hear cases, serve as symbols that Southern Republicanism once meant support for civil rights and attracted widespread adherence among those blacks who then voted.

Between 1955 and 1970 these Southern judges, and a handful of others who shared their vision, translated the bare-bones directive of Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark case that broke the back of segregation, into a broad mandate for racial justice.

In the 1960s Wisdom developed the philosophical framework for making affirmative action a constitutional value, writing: "To avoid conflict with the equal protection clause, a classification that denies a benefit, causes harm or imposes a burden must not be based on race. In that sense, the Constitution is color blind. But the Constitution is color conscious to prevent discrimination being perpetuated and to undo the effects of past discrimination. The criterion is the relevancy of color to a legitimate government purpose."

As one who understands how poor education has hurt the South and the nation, look for Alexander to focus on such issues as adult illiteracy and its relationship to social ills ranging from welfare to crime.

A major shift in Republican policy may result from the fortuitous timing of events that reflect and represent pragmatism, luck and morality. Alexander is likely to emerge as a strong new voice against a veto if Congress again passes the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

If the president signs that legislation, the 30-year-old Republican "Southern strategy," based on the exploitation of racial fears, could come to an end.

Jack Bass, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, is author of "Unlikely Heroes."


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