Republicans and Duke’s Election

Edwin M. Yoder’s incisive column (“In Duke, South’s GOP Reaps What It Sows,” Op-Ed Page, Feb. 22) on the Republican Party’s responsibility for the political success of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke had only one fault: It was too easy on the Republicans. In fact, party leaders have been using racist tactics to win white Southern support for far longer than the 20 years that Yoder cited.

Before World War I, a group of influential Republicans known as the “lily-whites,” convinced that the party would never attract white Southerners as long as it was associated with blacks, began a campaign to purge the party of all civil-rights causes. The presidency of Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) did a great deal to help the movement along, but it did not become permanent until 1964 when Strom Thurmond of South Carolina--the same Storm Thurmond who led the Dixiecrat walkout from the Democratic convention in 1948--defected to the GOP and Barry Goldwater carried the “solid South” in the presidential election.

Thurmond said that he was not leaving the Democratic Party because it had already left him. He was right. The Administration of Lyndon Johnson had just launched the greatest civil-rights campaign of the 20th Century. It was fashionable to be a liberal--except in the South. By the 1980s the party of Abraham Lincoln had become the party of Ronald Reagan. The success of David Duke was a logical consequence of that transition.




Wood is the author of “Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction” (University of California Press).