The Irony of Clinton’s Southern Strategy

by John Lawrence

There are a couple of levels of irony in recognizing that votes from the old Confederacy will likely propel Hillary Clinton to the Democratic presidential nomination. The former Secretary of State’s massive victory in South Carolina last Saturday provided her with a much needed demonstration of her electoral strength, especially among the black voters whose support – and turnout – will be crucial to her chances for victory in November.

South Carolina served to demonstrate the inherent advantages Clinton enjoys in a party that has developed a bedrock foundation of black and brown voters. True, young voters are also a crucial component of the Democratic majority, especially around values issues, and they have favored Bernie Sanders by significant margins during the early primaries and caucuses.   But they are also far less reliable voters, and Sanders’ questionable ability to motivate the minority base could prove a problem in the extreme unlikelihood of his nomination.

Should Clinton replicate her strong showing on Tuesday in the primaries that stretch throughout the South and to a few northern states, the math in favor of her eventual nomination becomes overwhelming, particularly with the steady addition of the party regular superdelegates who have already provided her with a little-noticed but significant majority of delegates.

Clinton’s surge to the nomination, therefore, is likely to occur in states which she – like any Democrat — has virtually no chance of winning in November. Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, even Arkansas where she presided as First Lady for a decade: these are states that Democrats have reliably lost in presidential elections for a half century, with a few anomalous exceptions, and in which she stands little to no chance of being competitive this fall. Yes, there are Democratic-leaning states in the Super Tuesday mix as well – Minnesota, Massachusetts and the People’s Republic of Vermont – and the former two are competitive with Sanders, but it will likely be the majorities Clinton runs up in the Old Confederacy that propels her towards victory in the fight for the nomination.

Yet Clinton’s victory in the South, while predicting little about how these states vote in the general election, has a special irony to it. Clinton likes to recall, particularly when campaigning among minority voters, how her earliest job after Yale Law School was with the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington non-profit that was a key player in legislation promoting the legal and educational rights of minority children in particularly. CDF sent Clinton to what remained, in the 1960s and ‘70s, a region hostile to black voters, although circumstances were improving as a result of the Civil Right Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960s, and the end of the poll tax due to the XXIVth amendment in 1964.

The politics of these southern states remained nearly as segregated at that time as it had for the preceding 80 years, following the imposition of restrictions on black voting during the Jim Crow era that followed the end of Reconstruction in 1877. While black people often constituted 30% to 40% of a congressional district, restrictions from discriminatory testing to outright intimidation resulted in black voters often making up less than 3% of the voting population of many districts, allowing conservative segregationists to command control of the region’s politics for decades.

Clinton’s foray into the South focused on an important but largely overlooked phenomenon which followed the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws affecting the region’s public schools. While most Americans believe the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court (which then had its full compliment of 9 Justices) ended segregation in public schools, it was not for another 15 years, after a decade and a half of obstruction, that the Court, in Alexander v. Holmes, ordered an immediate end of segregation in public education.

As Jason Sokol noted in his important study, There Goes My Everything, most school districts in the South had blithely ignored or resisted the Supreme Court’s edict in Brown. By 1967, only 14% of the region’s black children attended integrated schools. In the North Carolina school district that brought the case, 14,000 of the 24,000 black students still attended schools that were 99%, if 100%, segregated. The Johnson Administration responded by terminating federal education aid to scores of school districts in the South; two years later, the Supreme Court unanimously (again, 9-0) upheld the use of mandatory school busing to achieve desegregation (which provoked explosive outrages in the North as well as the South).

Southerners responded to the Court’s mandates by creating hundreds of private schools, a large proportion of which were sponsored by the rapidly increasing number of evangelical churches that were simultaneously serving as political bases for the reviving Republican party in the South. These so-called “seg academies” accelerated academic white flight and effectively depopulated many of the region’s public schools of white students.

Churches and their communities rallied to provide the financial assistance many white families needed to allow their children to attend the seg academies, which often kept their fees as low as possible so as not to exclude any white child. “I would go out and collect empty bottles, if necessary, to send [my child] to private school,” one white woman in Yazoo, Mississippi declared. As a result, noted Charles Allen Thompson, Jr., the executive director of the Mississippi Education Association, the segregation strategy “hit every child and parent in the state of Mississippi.”

Hillary Clinton’s early work as a CDF lawyer involved investigating these seg academies to ascertain whether charges of racial segregation could be brought against their operators. Given the rising racial tension of the times, as blacks increasingly registered to vote and flexed their political and legal powers, Clinton’s decision to engage in such potentially hazardous undercover work, as opposed to opting for the cushy corporate job a top Yalie might have landed, speaks to the deep commitment that she now has trouble communicating effectively to voters.

But as the African American voters of South Carolina just demonstrated, and those in Super Tuesday states are likely to affirm, black Americans appear to have little skepticism about Clinton’s commitment and sincerity, and their votes are likely to seal the deal on the nomination soon, if not this week. Donald Trump’s latest controversy, over his unwillingness to dissociate himself decisively from the Ku Klux Klan, is likely to further fuel black voter enthusiasm for the former Secretary of State.

Assuming she makes it to the White House, Clinton will find familiar terrain before her. For as conservatives employed religious-based seg academies in an effort to obstruct compliance with civil rights laws, so now they assert that their religious precepts should insulate them from compliance with the Affordable Care Act. Clinton’s experience with CDF may prove more valuable than she or voters have appreciated.