Until the 1960's, African Americans were overwhelmingly Republicans (except for some members of the New Deal coalition) and Southern whites were overwhelmingly Democrats. Then, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ensuing decades saw this demographic flip, with Southern whites becoming a core constituency of the Republican Party and the African American community voting as a bloc for Democrats.

So what caused this shift?

I'm interested in an authoritative response with authoritative sources, like scholarship from historians or political scientists, so that I can have a more solid understanding in the face of competing explanations about the shift. (For instance, citations of a Lee Atwater quote about racial "dog whistles" by Republicans to get the Southern white vote, or a Lynden Johnson quote about Democrats using entitlement programs to get the African American vote.)

  • "Until the 1960's, African Americans were overwhelmingly Republicans) [...] the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ensuing decades saw this demographic flip [...]" Really? I think it was happening much earlier.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 5:43
  • @user1873 Well, as I said, there were some African Americans who joined FDR's New Deal coalition, and there were occasional changes at other times, but the major and permanent shift away from the Republican Party came after the civil rights act. Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 6:52
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    Seems like a completely legitimate question to me. Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 17:54
  • I suggest you pick a single question for us to answer. Leaving multiple questions in your OP ust confuses the people trying to answer. I thought my answer that showed that the Republicans aren't racist disproved your 1st narrative, and supports the 2nd narrative of a misinformation campaign to brand the Reps as the racist party. You seem to have 2-3 questions wrapped up in this one question.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 19:09
  • @SamIAm, agreed. Don't you think it would be prudent to remove all text regarding the two competing narratives after the first bolded question then?
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 19:12

5 Answers 5


Others have talked about the shift in white southern voters and discussed what changed in the 1960s. In terms of the shift of black voters, I just wanted to point out that it did not occur in the 1960s. In 1936, Roosevelt became the first Democrat to win the black vote (at least since the Civil War), with 71%. Republicans haven't won a majority of the black vote since. Eisenhower in 1956 did the best, at 39%.

As recently as 1932, blacks voted overwhelmingly Republican. The biggest jump occurred during the first four years of the Roosevelt administration when blacks switched from 23% for Roosevelt to 71%. This would rise to 77% in 1948 and then dropped back in 1956 before becoming permanent in 1964.

Note that the black vote for Roosevelt is generally credited to his economic policies rather than civil rights. Subsequent changes seemed more rooted in civil rights actions:

  • Truman ended segregation in the military.
  • Eisenhower implemented the Supreme Court decision ending segregated schooling.
  • Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Source: http://www.factcheck.org/2008/04/blacks-and-the-democratic-party/

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    For posterity, black civil rights activists started advocating a shift away from Republicans during this period as Herbert Hoover purged blacks from Party positions in the South as he was attempting to compete for white voters: ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/…
    – TravMatth
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 0:58
  • Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act_of_1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1960 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act_of_1960
    – DavePhD
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:39
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    I think the format in "As recently as 1932, blacks voted overwhelmingly Republican." Is confusing, since you go on to describe votes for a Democrat. I'd revise to "Blacks have not voted overwhelmingly Republican since 1932", or whatever year makes it more accurate.
    – user2578
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:38

The story of the Southern white shift from Democrat to Republican can be told in several Presidential elections.

From 1860 to about 1960, southern whites were anti-Republican, because that party elected Abraham Lincoln President and brought about the Civil War. To the extent the African-Americans voted during that time, it was mostly for the Republicans.

In 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater won ONLY five "Deep South" states, plus his home state of Arizona. He proved himself a better defender of "southern values" than "southerner" (Texan), Lyndon B. Johnson who helped pass the Civil Rights Act. On signing the bill, Johnson said, "We might lose the South."

In 1968, George Wallace "split" the Democratic party and won four of the five Goldwater states as an Independent. Together with Goldwater, that made it "OK" for southerners not to vote Democratic.

After that, Republicans could win those states (and neighboring ones) by "hearkening" back to Goldwater.

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    As Brythan pointed out, the shift happened long before the 1960s.
    – Readin
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 4:26
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    @Readin: The shift started long before the 1960s. In that regard you are right. But it was "completed" during the 1960s. In that regard I'm right. Even Brythan referred to "before becoming permanent in 1964." That was the year of the Civil Rights Act, and that's how I date the shift. And I talked about the "southern white shift," which took place in the 1960s, and was a response to the black shift, which took place earlier. Brythan and I are talking about two different (but related) things.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 7:38

One aspect I haven't seen expounded upon is the earlier alienation of black voters through the 1930's

One major change in twentieth-century American voting patterns has been the shift of black Americans from the party of Lincoln to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For some historians the real beginning of this shift dates not to 1933 but to 1928.^ In that election year, Herbert Hoover became the first Republican president since Reconstruction to break the Solid South. Buoyed by his unprecedented victory, Republican leaders revived the old lily-white southern strategy in an attempt to permanently capture the South for the G.O.P. Basically, this policy required purging black Republicans from leadership positions in the southern wing of the G.O.P. and replacing them with respectable, business-oriented southern whites .... In launching the southern strategy, the Hoover team had expected only a relatively minor response among northern blacks, but this was not what they provoked. Inadvertently, they provided an issue around which the more militant black leaders, the men who had already become thoroughly disenchanted with the "clutches of Republican treachery,"" could rally. Quickly denouncing Hoover's call for a "lilywhite party" as a betrayal of American ideals, they mounted an educational and political campaign that had a significant impact on blacks' party loyalties.

Black Disaffection from the Republican Party During the Presidency of Herbert Hoover, 1928-1932


Brythan's answer discusses the shift of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.

In the past half-century, social issues have driven large numbers of married people (especially those who oppose abortion) from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. As explained below, these people are disproportionately White. Four major social factors have been:

  1. a racially-correlated timing factor in the Sexual Revolution
  2. Johnson's "Great Society" programs
  3. the Democratic Party's support for abortion, and
  4. the religious demographics of the South.

1) Broken home rates among American Blacks were high even before the Sexual Revolution. In the early 1960s (when Moynihan brought political attention to the issue) they were in the 20 - 30 percent range. In the wake of the Sexual Revolution, they rose to the 70 - 80 percent range for blacks, and the 20 - 30 percent range for whites.

2) The "Great Society" programs provided direct financial assistance to "impoverished" people. This created high marginal tax rates for the poor. Broken homes cause poverty -- and some of the "Great Society" programs encouraged broken homes. Because Black broken home rates have been higher than White broken home rates, discussions of the problems of the "Great Society" took on racial connotations. The Democratic Party has positioned itself as promoting, defending, and expanding the "Great Society" programs.

3) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most U.S. states loosened restrictions on abortion. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all of the U.S. states had unconstitutional restrictions on abortion -- despite the U.S. Constitution being silent on the subject. There nearly was a constitutional amendment to overrule the Supreme Court. This amendment was narrowly defeated by Democratic party politicians who said they were "personally against abortion", but consistently voted to legalize and/or publicly fund abortion. Since then, it has become increasingly difficult for anti-abortion Democrats to be elected as Democrats; whites who are "personally against abortion" have increasingly switched from the Democratic party to the Republican Party; and it has become increasingly difficult for pro-abortion Republicans to be elected as Republicans. Blacks (perhaps because of their higher broken-home rates) have much higher abortion rates than Whites.

4) A disproportionate number of Southern whites are members of Fundamentalist Christian churches. These churches have organized their members to oppose abortion.

Notable Republican operatives (including Lee Atwater and Karl Rove) have noted these trends, and deliberately used social-policy "wedge issues" to break up the post-LBJ Democratic Party.

Steve Sailer has analyzed the "Marriage Gap" and "Affordable Family Formation".

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    If it's about abortion and the like, what explains Barry Goldwater's success among Southern whites? He was pro-choice. That suggests that it's more about civil rights. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 23:45
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    @KeshavSrinivasan -- It is not either/or. You should also look at Jesse Helms and "affirmative action".
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 23:55
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    @KeshavSrinivasan -- I am under the impression that the "family values" issues did not become strongly tied to partisan politics until the 1970s. As late as the late 1960s, Republicans pushed through ground-breaking "no-fault" (aka "unilateral") divorce laws.
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 23:59
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    @KeshavSrinivasan -- That seems like a question worth asking separately. Remember, the Democratic Party successfully ran a Presidential ticket comprised of Southern whites as recently as 1996.
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 1:28
  • 1
    @DA -- Read some of Sailer's posts on the Marriage Gap. By the 2000s, whether people were married was a stronger predictor of their presidential voting than their party affiliation (after controlling for other identifiable factors). This tendency was highly repeatable. And this tendency was even stronger at the county and state levels than at the individual level.
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 3:20

This shift was partially due to the period of time it was and partially due to the parties at the time and in some ways to do with the leaders of the parties. The Northern Democrats were much more liberal JFK gained a lot of support in the north due to the fact that he was from Massachusetts and he was fairly liberal. But he also gained a lot of power in the south due to the fact that he was the Democrat candidate and they were solidly Democratic voters. During his Presidency there were many riots in the southern states and after the huge problems in Birmingham he decided that it was time to draft a proper civil rights law. This was mostly due to the public appeal at the time but also due to the fact that many Democrats in the north were becoming very progressive and had been since the Presidency of FDR. There had been efforts to pass civil rights laws before such as the 1957 civil rights act but this failed in Congress and had no endorsement from Eisenhower. When JFK was shot LBJ realized that it would be possible to use the tragedy of his death to continue the civil rights movement as he was also fairly progressive and it was needed at the time. So he used the fact that he was acing on the 'dying wishes' of JFK and his bullying technique often referred to as the Johnson treatment as well as his allies in both the Senate and the House to pass the legislation despite the fact that it had a lot of opposition from southern Senators who were representing the ideas of their people - there was still a lot of racism around at the time. This legislation as well as the voting rights act in 1965 caused the African Americans to change and vote more for the Democrats. All of this was coupled with the fact that in the 1964 election LBJ faced the anti-civil rights candidate Barry Goldwater who was often seen as extremist. In the 1968 election the Republican candidate Richard Nixon adopted the southern strategy and this was to try to appeal to the southern white voters due to the fact that they were disenchanted with the now progressive Democrats. He used more and more racist ideals to try to gain their votes. He continued this after the 1968 election due to the huge popularity of third party candidate George Wallace, the pro-segregationalist Governor of Alabama.

  • 4
    Thanks. I've heard this basic story before, and there is ample evidence that Republicans pursued a race-based Southern Strategy starting with Nixon to appeal to disenfranchised Southern whites, for instance the Lee Atwater quote I linked to in my question. But do you have evidence that the Southern Strategy is what caused Southern whites to become Republicans? Similarly, do you have evidence evidence that Democratic passage of civil rights legislation is what caused African Americans to switch parties? Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 17:52
  • Can you provide some references (books)?
    – dmvianna
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 12:03
  • 2
    "All of this was coupled with the fact that in the 1964 election LBJ faced the anti-civil rights candidate Barry Goldwater who was often seen as extremist." That is incorrect. Goldwater was very much a proponent of civil rights. He desegregated his family stores, helped a black man become a 4 start general, supported the NAACP with money and in other ways, and supported numerous Civil Rights laws before 1964, Be he was a libertarian and believed the 1964 act infringed went too far by infringing basic liberties.
    – Readin
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 4:38

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