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The Old South Returns

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Chris McDaniel may be the most known example, but the Tea Party in the South has always been about the return of the post-Civil War race baiting white South to respectable politics. Who are the real ancestors of the Tea Party?

We often think of the typical segregationist politician of yore as a genteel member of the white upper crust. But the more common mode was the fiery populist. Names like Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina and James K. Vardaman and Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi may be obscure outside the South, but for most anyone brought up here, they loom large.

In the early 20th century, these men rose on an agrarian revolt against Big Business and government corruption. They used that energy, in turn, to disenfranchise and segregate blacks, whose loyalty to the pro-business Republican Party made them targets of these racist reformers.

Their activities spawned a second wave of Southern Democratic populists, who defied federal court orders and civil rights legislation during the 1960s, even as more moderate politicians were moving on. Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, among others, portrayed himself as a tribune of the working class while championing segregation.

McDaniel and dozens of elected officials across the South are very much the descendants of not only Wallace and Faubus, but Tillman and Watson. So long as the government has the willpower to enforce minority voting, they will be eventually be repelled, but as the Supreme Court showed in gutting the Voting Rights Act last year, that willpower may well not be there at the court of final decision.

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