The Dixiecrat movement was a short-lived effort by conservative white Democrats to pressure the national Democratic Party to give up its support for Harry Truman’s civil rights program. When the party’s 1948 national convention adopted a strengthened civil rights position, the Mississippi delegation and half the Alabama delegates walked out of the assembly and formed a splinter group. Officially called the States’ Rights Democratic Party, the Dixiecrats condemned proposals to eliminate the poll tax, to pass a law against lynching, to end segregation in interstate transportation, and to make the Fair Employment Practices Commission a permanent institution. More broadly, they objected to the federal government’s increasing interest in civil rights issues and upheld what they saw as the virtues of states’ rights. The states’ rights movement attempted to reform the party system by creating a politically conservative Solid South that could govern itself without the centralized state.
In February 1948, even before the Democratic National Convention, Gov. Fielding Wright had called Mississippi’s first meeting of Democrats opposed to Truman’s civil rights initiatives, referring to the group as the True White Jeffersonian Democrats. Wright remained one of the group’s leaders and later was nominated as the Dixiecrats’ vice presidential candidate, joining presidential candidate Strom Thurmond of South Carolina on the national ticket. The True Democrats drew up a “declaration of principles” that denounced the national party’s platform. Walter Sillers, one of the most important Mississippi politicians of the mid-twentieth century and Speaker of the Mississippi House, coordinated the later walkout at the national convention and helped plan Wright’s strategy of preaching the rights of individual citizens and the sovereignty of the states. The group named Wright honorary chair of the first statewide convention: he joined businessman Wallace Wright, head of campaign direction, and Mary Louise Kendall, head of the Women’s Committee, as state leaders. By March of that year every county in the state had a True Democrat auxiliary.
When the dissident group failed to win concessions from the national party, the first and only convention of the States’ Rights Democratic Party met in Birmingham, Alabama, in July to nominate its presidential ticket. In addition to Fielding Wright, Mississippians involved in that convention included John Bell Williams, James Eastland, John C. Stennis, Wallace Wright, and Hugh White. The Dixiecrats knew that they would not win the presidential election but hoped either to pressure the national Democrats to amend their civil rights stance or to split the election among three parties and throw it into the House of Representatives. At the least, the Dixiecrats believed, their actions would force the national party to recognize its dependence on the South.
Thurmond and Wright received a majority of the presidential vote in Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana. The ticket won 87 percent of Mississippi’s votes, the highest percentage of any state. However, the Dixiecrat candidates received few votes from the Upper South and Georgia. Many of the South’s politicians maintained their affiliation with the Democratic Party, while a few hard-liners began to call for a separate southern party. Dixiecrats did not run candidates in future elections, but their opposition to the civil rights platform of the Democratic Party showed in national contests. The Dixiecrat walkout initiated the first of several instances after World War II when the Mississippi Democratic Party withheld its support from the national party.
- Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945–1980 (1995)
- Richard Ethridge, “Mississippi’s Role in the Dixiecrat Movement” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1971)
- Kari Fredrickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968 (2001)
- Robert A. Garson, The Democratic Party and the Politics of Sectionalism, 1941–1948 (1974)
- James Loewen and Charles Sallis, eds., Mississippi: Conflict and Change (1974)
- Ann Mathison McLaurin, “The Role of the Dixiecrats in the 1948 Election” (PhD dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1972)