According to O’Reilly, presidents known as reformers did not let their progressive tendencies interfere with their white supremacist beliefs.
Teddy Roosevelt occasionally lined up behind black political aspirations. He even once had lunch at the White House with Booker T. Washington, a racial accommodationist. But Roosevelt’s vocal support for scientific racism, O’Reilly argued, exposed the shallowness of his commitment to African Americans during the period of Jim Crow lynchings.
Woodrow Wilson, the former president of Princeton University known for his ability to tell good “darkie” jokes, spread segregation throughout the federal government even as he worked to spread democracy throughout the world.
More than anyone other president, O’Reilly wrote, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stamped liberalism onto the modern presidential reform agenda. But in order to maintain his New Deal economic programs, he needed to keep powerful white Southerners happy by not confronting racial segregation and disenfranchisement during the era of “separate but equal.”
Both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower passed several pieces of civil rights legislation, but they can only be considered what O’Reilly called “racial minimalists,” much like John F. Kennedy, whose short-lived term was slow to focus on the plight of blacks in the South.
Though Democrats dominated the South through the first half of the 20th century, their switch to the GOP became all too real when South Carolina U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond bolted the Democratic party to form the Dixiecrats, a party based on open racial segregation.
Nixon was the first modern-day Republican politician to take advantage of that split. His “Southern strategy” exploited white frustration with desegregation orders, and continued as Southern voters came to view national Democratic policies as out of touch with their values.
In some states, local party organizations went dormant or collapsed. Democrats did not just lose elections, they routinely failed to field credible candidates, and dozens of their incumbents switched parties to survive.
That transformation proved crucial to President George W. Bush’s two White House victories, as well as the historic Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
“Too many presidents of the far past,” O’Reilly concluded, “devoted too much energy to protecting slavery and then Jim Crow, and too many presidents of the more recent past have devoted too much energy to ensuring that the nation’s politics remain organized along racial fault lines.”
Another factor in Obama’s Southern success has been demographic changes. The South for years has been a growth magnet. Between 2006 and 2007, 70 of the 100 fastest-growing U.S. counties were in the South, according to census figures, and many of the newcomers are Northerners and minorities who view politics differently from native Southerners.
Obama’s campaigning in Southern states symbolizes a new Southern strategy, one that doesn’t pander to racial fears and ignorance but rather provides a bridge over those fault lines by focusing on the universal issues of the economy, health care and quality education — for all.
For once, the message of change — not protecting the racial status quo — resonated among Southern voters.
“You know,” Obama said earlier this year, “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But here’s the thing — it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc, and we bend it in the direction of justice.”
The signs of political inclusion were there during the last month before the election — even in states that Obama ultimately did not win.
In Georgia, for instance, almost 200,000 black voters cast their ballots early and made up a disproportionately high percentage of early voters, accounting for 37 percent.
In Arkansas, polls showed Obama trailing badly in a state that hadn’t voted for a democrat since Clinton’s re-election in 1996. Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004. But that didn’t stop Arkansas’ top Democrats from taking the stage last month to tout Obama’s credentials.
Former U.S. Sens. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers, Sen. Mark Pryor, Rep. Mike Ross, Gov. Mike Beebe, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, and former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker each said Arkansas and the country needs Obama to lead them.
Bill Clinton led the charge. The former president said Obama has the leadership qualities needed to fix the country’s financial crisis and stop mortgage foreclosures so people can get credit again. Clinton went on to say that Obama has the best health care plans and can bring an end to the Iraq war, reverse U.S. dependence on foreign oil and reduce global warming.
Obama would win the Nov. 4 election, Clinton boldly predicted, because of what the country has gone through under a Republican president for the last eight years.
“We got to see for most of President Bush’s term what would actually happen to America if the extreme right-wing philosophy that he and his allies in the Republican Party had advocated for the last 30 years were actually made real in the lives of the American people,” he said.
Though Obama didn’t win Arkansas, he did surprisingly well in North Carolina. It was slow at first. More than 45,000 black voters registered in the first three months of 2008, compared with just over 11,000 in the same period four years ago. Blacks make up more than 20 percent of the state’s registered voters, according to Board of Elections data.
The increase in black registration helped Democrats in North Carolina to outnumber Republicans by more than 40 percent.
Obama’s ability to rewrite Democratic political strategy did not go unnoticed — at least, not in one of his home state’s newspaper.
“He’s not afraid of challenge,” The (Galesburg, Ill.) Register-Mail wrote on Oct. 25. “He’s proven he has the mettle to stand up for himself and his country, but he also promises deliberation over rashness. Obama will surround himself with people of varying viewpoints and he will listen to those who disagree with him. He’s done that in Illinois.”
Of course, Obama was helped by the inept and erratic campaign of his Republican opponent, John McCain. The Arizona senator’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was just part of his problem.
“He calls himself a maverick,” the Register-Mail explained, “but mavericks are loners and dissenters who take independent stands against the crowd. Mavericks don’t chart out a well-planned course and follow it … McCain’s campaign, which has been volatile, jerky and shallow, has shown he doesn’t understand what the people and country need.”
But leave it to a Southern newspaper to capture the moment in their endorsement of Obama.
“This is an opportunity,” the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times wrote, “to turn to a leader from a new generation, someone who has the intellectual depth and inspirational qualities to confront the complicated issues at hand and create a shared vision for a brighter future for all Americans — regardless of their financial or social status.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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