The Return of the Silent Majority
Fifty years ago, in January 1969, Richard Nixon was sworn in as the thirty-seventh president of the United States. His legacy as President was marred by the Watergate investigations and his eventual resignation from office which overshadowed the way in which he won the office. His central campaign rhetoric was designed to garner support from white Southerners (otherwise known in history as the “Silent Majority”) whose racial beliefs leaned heavily towards the support of white supremacy. This rhetoric not only brought Nixon to Pennsylvania Avenue but effectively ended the modern Civil Rights movement. Decades later that same political strategy was successful in bringing another marginal candidate to the White House.
History books typically assign the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955) as the event that began the Civil Rights Movement. However, some historians see President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 (1948) desegregating the US military as the origin point. Regardless, the impetus for equal citizenship for black Americans forever changed the racial paradigm in this country. Sadly, there were many throughout this country that believed the Jim Crow paradigm was the correct nature of this country and human society.
It would be too easy to simply accuse those in the former Confederate states of embracing the Jim Crow paradigm as preserving the historical status quo. But the racist belief in the inferiority of blacks existed throughout this country (an example could be found in the negative reception Martin Luther King, Jr. received during his activities in Chicago). History tells us that most supporters of Jim Crow watched in fear as city after city erupted in protests to racism and the ever-unpopular war in Vietnam. While Nixon and the brain trust of the Republican Party labeled them as the “Silent Majority,” they were nonetheless vocally committed to protecting white supremacy (see the protests to prevent the integration of the Universities of Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi, to name a few).
The deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy threw the country, and the Democratic Party in particular, into a period of chaos. It was within the confines of chaos that the Republican Party conceived what became known as the “Southern Strategy.”
The transformation of the American political parties was well underway by the 1968 election season. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dared to openly court women and minorities to support the Democratic Party in 1936. In the midst of the Great Depression to say such a political move was risky was an understatement. Many of our history books downplay the fact that the Democratic Party was initially the party of white supremacists going back to the antebellum years. So for a woman, even a woman of political and social stature, to dare challenge its political hierarchy was dangerous.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Roosevelt was on the right side of history and created a political coalition in the Democratic Party that would stand for the next fifty years. This coalition purged the white supremacist element that initially sought refuge with the short-lived States’ Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) in 1948. Their platform centered in protecting states’ rights and the protection of Jim Crow and white supremacy in the US.
Unable to gain enough support to become a serious political powerhouse in the early 1950s, the Dixiecrats failed to place a candidate in the 1952 presidential race and officially ceased to exist. But that did not mean that all those white supremacists changed their minds about race. To the contrary. They maintained their racist beliefs, they just ceased talking about it.
The number of public racist demonstrations were dramatically reduced in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it seems as though this was the time in our history when Klansmen traded in their robes for police uniforms. But that is another story.
The 1960s has been called one of the most tumultuous decades in our nation’s history. When King began attacking the American involvement in Vietnam it seemed as though the nation was about to tear itself apart. Richard Nixon may have been many things as a politician, but one thing is certain: he knew the time was right to go after the forgotten white supremacists in the South.
As a result, white supremacy would have a new home in the Republican Party. With a strategy that clearly played to their fears of an economically and politically powerful black community, the Civil Rights movement ground to a peaceful end in January 1969. But the struggle for social, political, and economic racial equality continued, even as the Neo-Conservatives maneuvered to undo many of the social and political successes previously achieved.
Many in our society believed the 2008 election of Barack Obama as President to be the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights movement and a color-blind society. Sadly, the Silent Majority obviously saw the 2008 elections as a siren’s call to respond to what they perceived to be a threat to their social, economic, and political dominance in this country. The attacks on Obama and his family were often personal and vicious, not ideological.
Eight years later, during the 2016 Presidential campaigns, the Silent Majority was anything but silent. They found a new champion, one with enough “star power,” they believed, to correct everything achieved during the previous eight years. It’s my opinion that if they could they would reduce Obama’s presidency to merely a footnote in history.
Fifty years ago the Silent Majority mobilized and influenced national politics. Their return in 2016 was a surprise to many who mistakenly believed this country had progressed far beyond violent outbursts of bigotry, narcissism, and hatred. Yes, the Silent Majority returned. Is it possible they never really left?
Talk to you soon.
PS: Still waiting on those tax returns.