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‘Change has finally come to America’

Associated Press | 11/5/2008, 4:26 a.m.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pumps his fist as he speaks at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday, Nov. 3, 2008. In one small but brilliant maneuver, Obama was able to reverse the trend of Southerners voting Republican that Lyndon Baines Johnson had predicted when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. AP /Jae C. Hong

According to O’Reilly, presidents known as reformers did not let their progressive tendencies interfere with their white supremacist beliefs.

Teddy Roosevelt occasionally lined up behind black political aspirations. He even once had lunch at the White House with Booker T. Washington, a racial accommodationist. But Roosevelt’s vocal support for scientific racism, O’Reilly argued, exposed the shallowness of his commitment to African Americans during the period of Jim Crow lynchings.

Woodrow Wilson, the former president of Princeton University known for his ability to tell good “darkie” jokes, spread segregation throughout the federal government even as he worked to spread democracy throughout the world.

More than anyone other president, O’Reilly wrote, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stamped liberalism onto the modern presidential reform agenda. But in order to maintain his New Deal economic programs, he needed to keep powerful white Southerners happy by not confronting racial segregation and disenfranchisement during the era of “separate but equal.”

Both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower passed several pieces of civil rights legislation, but they can only be considered what O’Reilly called “racial minimalists,” much like John F. Kennedy, whose short-lived term was slow to focus on the plight of blacks in the South.

Though Democrats dominated the South through the first half of the 20th century, their switch to the GOP became all too real when South Carolina U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond bolted the Democratic party to form the Dixiecrats, a party based on open racial segregation.

Nixon was the first modern-day Republican politician to take advantage of that split. His “Southern strategy” exploited white frustration with desegregation orders, and continued as Southern voters came to view national Democratic policies as out of touch with their values.

In some states, local party organizations went dormant or collapsed. Democrats did not just lose elections, they routinely failed to field credible candidates, and dozens of their incumbents switched parties to survive.

That transformation proved crucial to President George W. Bush’s two White House victories, as well as the historic Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

“Too many presidents of the far past,” O’Reilly concluded, “devoted too much energy to protecting slavery and then Jim Crow, and too many presidents of the more recent past have devoted too much energy to ensuring that the nation’s politics remain organized along racial fault lines.”

Another factor in Obama’s Southern success has been demographic changes. The South for years has been a growth magnet. Between 2006 and 2007, 70 of the 100 fastest-growing U.S. counties were in the South, according to census figures, and many of the newcomers are Northerners and minorities who view politics differently from native Southerners.

Obama’s campaigning in Southern states symbolizes a new Southern strategy, one that doesn’t pander to racial fears and ignorance but rather provides a bridge over those fault lines by focusing on the universal issues of the economy, health care and quality education — for all.

For once, the message of change — not protecting the racial status quo — resonated among Southern voters.

“You know,” Obama said earlier this year, “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But here’s the thing — it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc, and we bend it in the direction of justice.”