The Story: Civil Rights Movement

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Usually, in the past, the conservative cause has been aided by the prejudice of those who opposed any kind of civil rights activity. Any liberal who honestly was a liberal and thereby indicated some appreciation of humanitarianism and exhibited concern for the people, would find himself sooner or later taking a forward looking, I think an American, position on civil rights. As soon as he did that, no matter what other virtues he had, he aroused an enormous amount of sometimes emotional opposition.

Claude Pepper

1963 March on Washington

At the time of the 1964 presidential race, the Republican Party was split into two factions – the conservatives and the moderates. Historically based in the Midwest, conservatives had been gaining strength in the West and the South for roughly two decades. They favored low federal taxes and states’ rights, opposing social welfare programs and civil rights legislation. Conservatives saw little difference between the political philosophy and governmental approach of moderate Republicans (strongest in the Northeast) and liberal Democrats.

Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was a leader among conservatives. As a staunch defender of states’ rights, he took a strong stance against the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights bill. However, his platform of rigid fiscal conservatism and militant anti-communism alarmed many and caused members of his own party to turn against him. During the Republican primaries of 1964, the party’s moderates recruited a series of opponents to challenge Goldwater’s bid for the party ticket. Despite their attempts, Goldwater won the Republican primaries and was named as the party’s nominee for president.

Goldwater was successful in his campaign to rally right wing conservatives, but he was unable to gain broad support from his party in the general election. Just prior to the Republican Convention (July 13-16), he had solidified his position on the Civil Rights Act by voting against the bill. This choice alienated many moderate Republicans and enabled the Johnson campaign to portray Goldwater as a racist. Nonetheless, Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Act as an invasion of states’ rights boosted his popularity among white southerners who felt increasingly betrayed by the civil rights policies of the national Democratic Party.

"Aided by the prejudice"
- Claude Pepper

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Unfortunately for Goldwater, appealing to conservatives in the Deep South and maintaining the support of his home state of Arizona fell far short of carrying the November 3rd general election. Johnson won over 61 percent of the popular vote, the largest percentage since 1824. The margin was even greater in the Electoral College, where Goldwater trailed far behind Johnson with only 52 of the possible 538 votes. Nonetheless, Goldwater’s success in the Deep South marked a major shift in the region’s political allegiance and an important part of the process by which the formerly Democratic Solid South transformed itself into a Republican stronghold. Consequently, Goldwater’s loss in the 1964 presidential election is now considered a victory for conservatives. It is believed to have laid the foundation for the rise in Republican conservatism that followed.