The “southern strategy” was, and is, a cynical strategy embraced by the new rendition of the Republican Party in the 1960s in order to appeal to racist voters in the South, who had previously identified with the racist Dixiecrat values of the Democratic Party, by using lingering race prejudices and distruct to create a wedge issue to divide the electorate. It was a move that turned the history of the Republican Party on its head after Sen. Barry Goldwater led the move to remake the GOP into a party that courted the racist vote, after the national Democratic Party did an about-face on civil rights legislation.
Richard Nixon was the first president to use the southern strategy in 1968, and it was perfected under Ronald Reagan, who regularly employed unsubsantiated rhetoric about welfare mothers and other race-tinged phrases to appeal to white voters. Reagan’s most famous use of the strategy was in his states rights speech at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980 to kick off his campaign. The term “state’s rights” is often used in more conservative areas of the South as a code phrase for segregationist sentiment.
Scholars credit now Mississippi Gov.-Haley Barbour for being a primary architect of the southern strategy, along with now-deceased Lee Atwater. Barbour was an early Republican in Mississippi, and worked as a political strategist for both Reagan and Nixon.
The strategy probably backfired on the GOP, however, driving progressives of all races to the formerly racist Democratic Party and alway from the traditional party of Lincoln. In July 2005, epublican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman apologized to the NAACP national convention in Milwaukee for his party’s embrace of the racist strategy, saying that it was “wrong.”
“By the ‘70s and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out,” Mehlman said in a prepared speech. “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” Mehlman, who had managed President Bush’s re-election campaign, told the NAACP that it was “not healthy for the country for our political parties to be so racially polarized.”
Jan. 3, 2007, Jackson Free Press: Where the Southern Strategy Belongs
July 14, 2005, Washington Post: RNC Chief to Say It Was ‘Wrong’ to Exploit Racial Conflict for Votes
March 24, 2004, Salon: That Old-Time Southern Strategy
Winter 2003, Southern Poverty Law Center: ‘Southern Strategy’: In Mississippi, race and flag color gubernatorial campaign
Nov. 8, 2003, Guardian/UK: Look Away, Dixieland
Dec. 19, 2002, Jackson Free Press: Our Boy Trent: What Lott’s Thurmond Comments Meant