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Q&A with Professor Jeffery Jenkins on the Whiteness and Emergence of the Republican Party in the South

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

Originally posted at Price News, Feb 5, 2020

Jeffery A. Jenkins, USC Price Provost Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Law has recently published a new article in the journal Studies in American Political Development. It is entitled “Whiteness and the Emergence of the Republican Party in the Early Twentieth-Century South.”

The article generated a lot of buzz on social media. Altmetric, which tracks and analyzes the online activity around scholarly research outputs, reports:

“Altmetric has tracked 14,188,250 research outputs across all sources so far. Compared to these this one has done particularly well and is in the 99th percentile: it’s in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric.”

The article also very quickly became the most read article in the journal’s history. We asked Dr. Jenkins to share some thoughts on this article and why it’s become so important to the national dialogue.

Before talking about the social-media buzz, can you summarize what the article is about?

The article examines what the Republican Party in the South looked like after the fall of Reconstruction (in 1877) and before the emergence of the modern-day Republican Party in the South in the 1970s. Very little is written on the GOP during this “gap period.” Still, while Southern politics were almost exclusively run by the Democrats during these years, the Republican Party did exist.

Two factions vied for control of the Republican Party: the Black-and-Tans, which was a biracial group of blacks and whites, and the Lily-Whites, who sought to make the GOP a party led by whites only. In time, the Lily-Whites won in every Southern state, but the timing varied across the states; the Southern GOP eventually became a majority-white party.

Leaders of the Arkansas Republican Party, 1916
Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville

To track the battle for control between the Black-and-Tans and Lily-Whites, we collected original data on the racial composition of Republican National Convention delegations from the South between 1868 and 1952. We then used these data in a set of statistical analyses to show that, once disfranchising laws were enacted, the “whitening” of the GOP in the South led to a significant increase in the Republican Party’s vote totals in the region.

Table taken from “Whiteness and the Emergence of the Republican Party in the Early Twentieth-Century South,” Studies in American Political Development.

Our takeaway is: the Lily-White takeover of the Southern GOP helped set the stage for the Republican Party’s reemergence—and eventual dominance—in the region during the second half of the twentieth century.

How did you get interested in this topic – the Republican Party in the South during this era?

We thought it was important to tell the Republican Party’s story in the South during this era. Both because it was interesting and because it was important for what the Republican Party in the South looks like today. Remember: in every election but one since 1972, Republican presidential nominees have carried a majority of Southern states. And in five elections – 1972, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 – they have swept the region. And since 1994, the GOP has held a majority of Southern House and Senate seats and governorships. Finally, in 2016, Trump won all eleven ex-Confederate states except Virginia, which provided him with 155 electoral votes – more than half of his grand total. How exactly did we get here?

The study started with a much narrower question: why did the GOP’s national leadership continue to give representation to Southern states at the Republican Party Convention every four years, when the Democrats had complete control of elections in the South? In the 10 presidential elections between 1880 and 1916, for example, the eleven states from ex-Confederacy produced exactly zero electoral votes for the Republican presidential nominee. And yet Southern states had about 25% of all GOP convention delegates during this time, and thus had a significant hand in important Republican Party decisions – like choosing the party’s presidential nominee.

What my coauthor – Boris Heersink, my PhD student at the University of Virginia and now an assistant professor at Fordham University – and I found was that Republican delegates from the South during this era were seen as an important foundation for coalition building by the candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Many candidates sought to “buy” these Southern GOP delegates through promises of executive patronage (should they be elected president). So while Republican state parties during this era weren’t electorally competitive, they were important for building successful presidential nominations. As a result, while there were calls for reducing the size of Southern delegations at the Republican National Convention, enough party elites rejected those calls, primarily because they were often either seeking the presidential nomination themselves or working for someone who was.

In the course of this research, and the article that was produced, we came to see that Republican politics in the South during this era was much richer than commonly believed. I think it’s fair to say that scholars don’t know much about the Republican Party in the South from about 1877 through the the late-1960s. And they also don’t know that there were two coalitions – the Black-and-Tans and the Lily-Whites – battling for control of the GOP in the Southern states during this time.

All of this led to the article in Studies in American Political Development, and a book, Republican Party Politics in the American South, 1865-1968, which will be out in the Spring of 2020.

Why do you think your new article has received so much attention?

I think there are probably a few reasons.

First, as I already noted, most people don’t know much about the Republican Party in the South during this era. As a scholarly community, we sort of assume the GOP didn’t really exist for a few generations after Reconstruction collapsed – and then emerged again in the South after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised African-Americans and pushed conservative, Southern whites away from the Democratic Party. The GOP did exist in the South during this time, and the politics of the Southern GOP were both interesting and important for the national Republican Party. I think people, after reading the article, get a sense of that.

Jenkins book cover

Second, people are interested to see what the Republican Party in the South looks like during this era, as measured by the racial breakdown of state delegates sent to the Republican National Convention every four years. After Reconstruction, every state Republican Party has a large percentage of African-Americans – and that percentage maxes out in the 1890s. So after Reconstruction ends and every Southern state is controlled by the Democratic Party, the GOP in the South continues as a biracial party. This starts to end around 1900, as Southern states begin to fall under the spell of the Lily-Whites, who argued that – as states begin to pass laws to disenfranchise African-Americans – the only way the Republican Party could be electorally competitive again was to become all white. In other words, in a world where the new electorate was almost exclusively white, only a white party would be electorally successful. Southern whites, in their view, would never vote for candidates of a “black party.” So the party had to eliminate all blacks from leadership positions.

When we look at the data, we find that some state Republican Parties – like the GOP in North Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia – eliminated blacks early and completely from their convention delegations. Other state Republican Parties – like the GOP in South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi – rejected the Lily-White challenge for many years and sent delegations to the Republican National Convention that were often or usually majority-black. Mississippi was the most extreme example, as the state Republican Party remained under the control of Perry Howard, a black man, until 1960 and consistently sent majority-black delegations to the GOP convention. (Howard is shown sitting far left, on the book cover, right.)

People find this variation interesting. Why did some states become Lily-White early on, while others – like Mississippi – held out and remained biracial for so long? My answer is: read the book!

Third, people find the final takeaway interesting: going beyond a cursory look at the data, a statistical analysis shows that before disenfranchising legislation was passed – and when black voters were the Republican Party’s core constituency in the South – a whiter party actually had a negative effect on the GOP’s electoral performance. That is, black voters paid attention and punished their state GOP if black leadership declined. But after the passage of disenfranchising legislation, which effectively snuffed out black suffrage, a whiter party had a positive effect on the GOP’s electoral performance. This result holds not just in terms of presidential elections, but in House and governor elections as well. This shows that the Lily-Whites were in fact right: the GOP actually did better in elections in the Jim Crow era as it became whiter.

That improvement was generally not enough for the party to begin winning elections right away. But by the 1950s, Republicans began winning Southern elections at the presidential level. And by 1960, GOP candidates started winning Senate and governorship races.

So when we look at the Republican Party today, and see that its contemporary base consists of white Southern voters, our article and book help people understand how that came to be.

Bedrosian Center