Three Southern presidents and the South

by DG Martin

The recent death of Rosa Parks has us thinking again about 20th century transformation of our region from ‘“backwater’” to a ‘“New South’” of opportunity and growth.

Without the Civil Rights Revolution and the overturning of the South’s systems of racial segregation and inequality, there would be no ‘“New South.’”

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955 and the bus boycott led by Martin Luther King played a memorable role. So did the nonviolent activities of King and others in the following years.

Lawyers and judges were very important. Perhaps ‘“moderate’” whites should get some credit for helping preserve peace in potentially explosive times.

Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name, a book about racial conflict in a small North Carolina town in the early 1970’s, has convinced many readers that without the strong, aggressive, and sometimes violent resistance of blacks, their struggle for justice would have foundered.

Sometimes lost in these discussions is the role of presidential leadership. Renowned presidential historian and UNC-Chapel Hill emeritus professor William Leuchtenburg believes presidents made a big difference in the transformation of the South. His new book, The White House Looks South, reviews the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Each of them had strong ties to the South and sympathized with southern traditions. Once in office, however, Leuchtenburg explains how each of them pushed programs of racial equality and how their powerful southern friends often became their bitter enemies.

Roosevelt’s deep attachment to the South arose from his times in Warm Springs, Ga., where he first went for post polio treatments. He found a second home there, bought farm property, drove the countryside, and made friends with his neighbors and the political elite. He was unapologetic in touting his Southern sympathies. When visiting Montgomery shortly after winning the 1932 election, he declared that it was a ‘“red-letter day’” for him to ‘“have had the opportunity to come here and stand where Jefferson Davis once stood.’”

More recently, similar remarks about another symbol of Southern resistance, Strom Thurman, cost US Senate majority leader Trent Lott his job. Ironically, in the 1932 election, a young Edgefield, SC, politician named Strom Thurman organized a large rally in support of Roosevelt’s candidacy.

Harry Truman grew up in the segregated society of border-state Missouri. According to Leuchtenburg, he ‘“made no effort to conceal his racist convictions.’” His family was so pro-Confederacy that when in 1905, as a young National Guard soldier, he wore his blue uniform to visit his grandmother, she told him, ‘“Don’t bring it here again.’”

Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, actually hailed from a former Confederate state. He liked to say, inaccurately, that he was ‘“the grandson of two Confederate veterans.’” Leuchtenburg writes that Johnson ‘“claimed kin in almost every southern state. He could trace the Baines line to his great-great-great-grandfather in North Carolina….’”

Notwithstanding their Southern connections and sympathies, these three presidents confronted the established racial order of the region. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs gave new opportunities and new positions of power for blacks. Roosevelt unleashed aspirations that would become strident demands for an end to segregation and unequal treatment.

President Truman transcended his personal racist views to champion a Civil Rights agenda that alienated many Southerners. His order integrating the armed forces began the transformation of one of America’s most segregated institutions to one of great opportunity for blacks and other minorities.

Leuchtenburg believes that Lyndon Johnson’s great achievements in pushing through meaningful civil rights legislation are sometimes overshadowed by the tragedy of his Vietnam policies. But the laws only he could push through Congress, especially the Voting Rights Act, provided the legal and political muscle that finally rolled away our region’s worst practices.

Leuchtenburg shows convincingly that these presidents’ actions were critical in bringing about dramatic changes in our region.

The story of how these three presidents faced a region they knew and loved would be a good one, even if penned by another writer. But Leuchtenburg’s lifelong study of the presidency, his thorough research, and his gift of story telling make this book what John Hope Franklin has rightly called a ‘“must read for anyone interested in the presidency in the twentieth century.’”