Journalist, author and professor Curtis Wilkie, who honed his writing skills on news fronts from Beirut to Bourbon Street, has dipped his pen into Gothic politics of Mississippi and the South and explored how the region may look in the post-Tea Party era.
After roaming the world for 25 years covering news hotspots, Wilkie fortunately has landed back in his native state as a teaching fellow in the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi.
His op-ed piece in The New York Times on Aug. 13 analyzes the evolution of Republican politics in the South from the Civil War to the present in what he finds are three stages – what he calls “waves” – each laced with a subtext of race.
The recent Chris McDaniel-Thad Cochran Republican Senate primary brawl, Wilkie said, served to revive Mississippi’s old bitter-end resistance. McDaniel, a creation of the state’s new Tea Party movement, as Wilkie relates, refuses to accept the validity of Cochran’s victory and leaves the state’s vital representation in Congress’s upper branch, for the time being, in doubt.
Wilkie puts McDaniel, a state lawmaker, in the category with two of Mississippi’s noted racial demagogues, Theodore G. Bilbo and James K. Vardaman, both of whom peddled a mix of populism and bigotry.
Various historians, starting with V.O. Key Jr. considered the leading authority on Southern politics, have analyzed the oddities and behavior of individual states in the region. In his 1949 tome “Southern Politics,” he saw the Republican Party in the South then as a “paper” organization whose leadership existed essentially to get patronage crumbs.
As authoritative as Key was back then, he did not foresee the large number of blacks residing in the South ever becoming a factor in Southern politics or decision-making.
Having covered the 1948 state convention of Mississippi’s “Black and Tan” Republicans, I can’t argue with Key’s conclusion. Though they had no political power in state politics, the group, headed by Perry Howard, a black lawyer who spent most of his time in Washington, D.C., was recognized by the National Party as opposed to Mississippi’s “Lily White” Republicans.
The two groups were merged in 1956 to support Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero who twice easily won the presidency. Emergence of Mississippi’s modern Republican Party as a powerful offset for the longtime Democratic Party would not come until some three decades later.
Wilkie cites A. D. Kirwin’s 1951 “Revolt of the Rednecks” which traces the rise of Southern populists playing the race card. These demagogues, Wilkie said, made education a whipping boy and began marching under the banner of states’ rights.
Here we can see creation of the 1948 “Dixiecrats,” leading a rebellion against the National Democratic Party and, in the opinion of many, building a pathway for the eventual transition of thousands of Democrats to the Republican Party. As Wilkie reminds us, Cochran’s senatorial status is still not a done deal, and this state like the South, bedeviled by the Tea Party, must find its way in the world of politics.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman firstname.lastname@example.org.