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I've been told that the laws had received widespread support amongst the Democrats of the time. This seems at odds with the current posture of the Democrat Party; is this true?

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Yes. Following the American Civil War, the Democratic party was the primary haven for America's most machiavellian racists, (some of which set also included active criminals and terrorists), who labored tirelessly to subvert, frustrate, and stymie many of the postwar reforms, in a too often successful effort to continue a de facto slavery by other means and under other names.

Around the mid-20th century the Democrats grew to be somewhat less racist, leaving the more racist southern "Dixiecrats" without a party, which was when the Republican party resorted to what's been called the Southern Strategy to assimilate the Dixiecrats. Having done so, the Republican party has never been quite the same...


See also my answer to Are there cases of Democrats engaging in voter suppression?.

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    A major turning point was when President Lyndon B. Johnson (D, Texas) aggressively advocated for and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Johnson himself allegedly predicted this would cause them to lose the South, which ultimately they did quite demonstrably with Reagan and the Southern Strategy. But he did it anyway, as he was convinced it was the right, Christian thing to do (not that Johnson was a saint even on the matters of race, and had even used Congressional stall tactics to block civil rights legislation as a Senator before). – zibadawa timmy Jul 5 at 17:52
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft True, I believe Lincoln referred to the Whigs and Democrats switching sides. – HAEM Jul 6 at 10:13
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    @HAEM Early American politics, and political identities, were very volatile, yes. I remember long ago in my HS civics course (or was it textbook?) there was an image describing parties and alignments, and at one point in the fairly early history there was just a "dust cloud", like you'd expect to see in a cartoon when two characters start fighting wildly; because things just got that crazy around then, at least in the opinion of this graphic maker. – zibadawa timmy Jul 6 at 17:56
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    I think what you meant is this xkcd chart @zibadawatimmy – Nij Jul 6 at 21:47
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    @zibadawatimmy - The "swap" between the two parties had begun well before LBJ. My readings have indicated that the change began in the 20s and was not completed until the 70s or 80s. Note that Democrat president Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. – Hot Licks Jul 6 at 21:58
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True, but.

This is a classic case of being true on paper but needing extensive qualifiers to be properly understood by a modern day audience.

At the time when Jim Crow laws were introduced – 150 to 100 years ago, approximately – the US political arena was very different from what it is today. While the two main parties had been the Republican and Democratic party since the beginning of the Third Party System in the 1850’s, aside from the names of these parties many things have changed. In the 1860’s, the Democratic Party housed both Copperheads – anti-abolitionists who wanted to end the Civil War with a quick peace treaty and then negotiate the Confederacy back into the Union – and War Democrats – mostly abolitionists who wanted to restore the Union by defeating the secession states. Likewise, there were Radical Republicans – starch abolitionists and spearheads of Reconstruction – although it seems their counterparts within the Republican Party did not receive such a distinct label. (The Republican Party as a whole had been born from discontent on the expansion of slavery it had no strong anti-abolitionist fraction.) After the Civil War, the Republican Party was the dominant party winning all but two presidential elections.

Naturally, if one party dominates a country on a national level after winning a civil war which in turn was caused by part of said nation seceding to preserve the institution of slavery and disenfranchise the Black (i.e. slave) population, this winning party will follow through with their promises; accordingly, the Republican Party was the main driving force abolishing slavery and giving the Black population voting franchise and citizenship rights. Equally naturally, those who used to be in power in that area will strongly despise this new development and not support the winning party. Obviously however, the Republican Party had solid support among the freed Slaves. Furthermore, the freed Black slaves formed a majority in two states and a considerable voting block in many more. So those whites who had enjoyed dominance prior to the Civil War devised ways uphold their dominance.

Initially, this goal of keeping the freed slaves away from the voting booths was reached by violence and the threat thereof, see for example the Ku Klux Klan. Once majorities had been achieved in state legislatures, more subtle tactics for Black disenfranchisement were used which in and of themselves formed part of the Jim Crow laws.

The above mentioned developments were key points of the political history of the United States in the second half of the 19th century. At the turn of the century, the political issues shifted to what is now known as the Fourth Party System. The names of the parties were the same and the Republicans continued to dominate the northern and western states while the Democratic Party held the Solid South. The key change was personnel as the veterans of the Civil War were aging and dying while a new generation of politicians emerged. The major issues were now economic and labour issues, the results of the Gilded Age and the leadup to the Progressive Era. The major divide between Democratic and Republican fellowship was, however, religious with the Republicans enjoying the support of pietist Christians while the Democrats were supported mostly by Catholics and less pietist Protestants. In turn, this meant that there were supporters of both more and less economic regulation across both parties.

The Republican Party itself had two competing factions especially in the South: the Black-and-Tan faction which consisted of the Black members supporting equal rights and those whites (‘tanned’) who supported their cause, and the Lily-White faction which intended to exclude Blacks from party positions. The latter historically recruited most of its members from those who had supported abolitionism but did not want the Black-and-tan majority from gaining power within the party. Black disenfranchisement, although initiated by the Democratic party, helped sustain and strengthen the Lily-White faction. (All Black Members of Congress elected in the 19th century were Republican; the Democratic Party being seen as the party of secession, appeasement and slavery had very little support among the Black population.)

The next significant development occurred after the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. This was, of course, the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. His policies included social security and economic regulation, quite distinct from those of, e.g., Grover Cleveland, Democratic president of the late 19th century. The most direct effect of this was economically liberal Democrats being discontent with their party and tended to either fail reelection or cross the aisle to join the Republican Party. Thus, the 1930’s is when the Democratic and Republican Parties finally split somewhat cleanly on economic issues (Democrat Wilson, for example, had generally implemented similar policies to his Republican predecessors and successors). This is known as the Fifth Party System and it was the first time since the Civil War that the Democratic Party dominated the political landscape of the United States.

As FDR’s New Deal policies disproportionally supported the poor and as – following decades of slavery and then decades of disenfranchisement and segregation – Blacks where overwhelmingly poor, this also marked a period where the Democratic Party began receiving support from Black voters. However, both parties were still mixed or leaning conservative on social issues – especially the Democratic Members of Congress from the Solid South who benefitted the most from segregation and Black disenfranchisement. Indeed, conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats frequently worked together to prevent socially liberal legislation throughout the Fifth Party System era from the 1930’s to the 1960’s/70’s.

The first blow to this system may be considered President Truman’s Civil Rights initiative of 1948 which led to the Civil Rights Dispute at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. Truman said:

My forebears were Confederates … but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.

While this was fiercely criticised by the Southern Democrats who even walked out of the National Convention, fielded a third-party presidential candidate and carried four states, little happened legitatively with the aforementioned conservative coalition being able to prevent any compelling legislation from passing which was thus mostly not even introduced.

Anybody who studied American postwar history will know that at this point in time, the kettle was boiling and the Civil Rights Movement erupted in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. While minor progresses were made during the Truman and Eisenhower (Republican) administrations, it was during Kennedy’s term that major legislation was devised and introduced – largely due to the immense pressure of the Civil Rights Movement, but it was Johnson who was able to get most of the legislation introduced in the late 1960’s. It is sometimes claimed but most likely untrue that Johnson foresaw the Solid South going Republican after these bills; what actually happened is that the Democratic Party as a whole and on a national level adopted a more socially liberal stance which alienated those southern conservative Democrats that had previously enjoyed hegemony in their area. This can be seen immediately in the presidential election of 1968, where among the states of the Solid South only Texas voted for the Democratic candidate Humphrey, while Wallace, a third-party candidate carried five (the presidency went to Nixon).

It’s worth taking a look at the Black vote over the ages which is somewhat related to the Black population distribution. Up until the 1910’s, nearly 90 % of the Black population still lived in mostly rural areas of the South where they had once been enslaved. These were often disenfranchised, turnout is reported to have been as low as 4 % in South Carolina’s 1st district in 1894. If Blacks were allowed to vote, they usually voted Republicans as they saw the Democratic Party being responsible for the situation they were in – although I have been unable to find numbers reaching this far back. Partial support to this claim can be found in the results of North Carlina’s 2nd district, known as the Black Second as it was gerrymandered to encompass most Black population centres, which almost consistently voted Republican between the Civil War and the 20th century.

During the First World War, a large number of able-bodied men were drafted to fight in Europe while the need for war material also boosted industrial economy – and industry was mostly located in the North. This led to a large migration movement of those willing to take up industrial jobs to these jobs, increasing the Black population of northern cities drastically (Detroit’s grew 2000 %, that is not a typo). In northern cities, the experience was no longer that one party strongly upheld segregation while the other had freed the slaves. Rather, the Republican Party had, over time, considered the white southerner vote more important than the Black southerner and equally noted that there was little ground to be made in the northern states by supporting equal rights. This reduced Black support for Republicans which in turn meant that at least some Black support for the Democratic Party must have developed. Sadly, I was unable to find numerical evidence.

Possibly the first big political event drawing Black voters to the Democratic Party was FDR’s New Deal – after the Hoover administration apparently drove them away from the Republican Party by his handling of the Mississippi flooding. As a nice graph from factcheck.org (reproduced below) shows, Black party identification was almost 50:50 split between Democratic and Republican at the beginning of the New Deal era in 1936 but Black party identification soared to almost entirely Democratic after the Second World War and the Civil Rights Act passing. Perhaps more indicative are the graphs that the Washington Post displays using the same data: the Black vote was about 70 % Democratic in the New Deal era, plunged to 60 % for Eisenhower’s re-election and then soared to consistently above 80 % after 1964. It’s worth comparing the Black Democratic vote to the overall Democratic vote: the two curves are almost parallel from 1936 to 1964 (although Truman dented the Black curve upwards, i.e. had more Black than non-Black support), but the Black Democratic vote almost completely separates itself from the overall Democratic vote post-1968.

Black party identification in the US from 1936

In the decades since the 1960’s, a slow realignment within the parties has been taking place. It meant that conservative Democrats felt less at home and less happy with their party at a national level and thus heavily socially conservative areas would slowly realign to voting majorly Republican – usually once a Democratic incumbent retired. The 1960’s also ended the Black-and-Tan and Lily-White factions within the Republican party with the latter mostly taking over (although Black-and-Tan had been a minority or non-existent in most areas already). Taken together, many observers argue that the US are now in a Sixth Party System, in which the Democratic Party is socially and economically progressive (and strongly opposed to Jim Crow Laws) while the Republican Party is economically liberal and socially conservative. So to a present-day observer a mere answer of yes is not giving the full picture.

The above is an attempt at a brief overview. It leaves out a lot of details and probably gets others wrong although I did my best to be as accurate as possible.

If you want an even briefer overview, I can recommend this 24-minute Youtube Video which I feel explains it well while debunking a couple of common misstatements along the way.

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    Re "So those whites who had enjoyed dominance prior to the Civil War devised ways uphold their dominance.": the grammar here is incorrectly neutral and leaves out the real ignorance and evil of it... "those whites" could have chosen not to have done any devising. Choosing to was never some neutral politics-as-hydraulics process, it was an actual crime against the entire nation... or perhaps against the world, given the bad example it had set for other nations' racist factions. – agc Jul 6 at 15:07
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    @agc The grammar there is correctly neutral, especially considering this is a Q&A site. Biased opinions do not make for good factual answers, this is politics, so it doesn't matter which side you stand on, someone somewhere will hold a different opinion. So it is best to stay as objective and neutral as possible while communicating the simple facts. – Bardicer Jul 6 at 19:42
  • This answer brushes up against an explanation of the switch in ideologies of the Democrat and Republican parties, but would be better if it included some more info about it, since it's relevant to why the historical parties aren't very similar to the modern parties. livescience.com/… – computercarguy Jul 7 at 22:11

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