White supremacy groups played prominent role in American politics

June 25, 2015

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Elaine Justice
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elaine.justice@emory.edu

White supremacy groups and their connections in American politics are receiving heightened media attention this week, but as Emory historian Joe Crespino said in a recent radio interview, "The history of white supremacist groups in American politics is deeply rooted."

While most are aware of the Ku Klux Klan's role in politics during post-Civil War Reconstruction, fewer might be as familiar with the Klan's revival in the 1920s and its spread beyond the South, says Crespino.

For example, the Klan was popular in Indiana, and "they were a force to be reckoned with in Detroit politics," he says. A number of high-profile politicians of that era had ties to the Klan, including liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

According to Crespino, white supremacy remained an explicit part of southern Democratic politics through the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Two notable examples were South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run on behalf of the States' Rights Democratic Party (aka "Dixiecrats") to protest the Democratic Party's civil rights agenda, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace's 1963 speech promising "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Partisan dynamics began to change in the 1960s, says Crespino, when white supremacist groups began to find common cause with other kinds of conservative groups, namely those that were anti-government.

Crespino says this week's revelations of donations by a white supremacy group to Republican presidential candidates is one more example of these groups' lingering political legacy.

"For the past 30-40 years conservative candidates have had to do a dance," says Crespino, "wink at white supremacist, anti-government supporters but try not to alienate moderate white supporters and look like a racist."

Crespino is the author of "Strom Thurmond's America" and "In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Counterrevolution," and co-editor of "The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism."