representing the ruling class

Way back in 1988, I sat across from Strom Thurmond in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., and listened as he explained his opposition to federal anti-lynching laws and any other federal encroachment on states’ rights during his long career.

“I felt it was dangerous to shift it all to Washington,” the then-85-year-old U.S. senator and former Dixiecrat presidential candidate from South Carolina told me.  “Lynching was nothing but murder. All states had laws against murder. … I’ve never had any feelings against minorities.”

Senator Strom Thurmond
Senator Strom Thurmond

Never mind that Thurmond, who died at 101 in 2003, led the Dixiecrat revolt out of the Democratic Party in 1948 and into the Republican Party in the 1960s largely as a reaction against civil rights legislation. Never mind that he was a segregationist superstar during much of the civil rights movement.

Thurmond’s disdain for the federal government that provided him a paycheck through much of his life was in classic Southern tradition. As far back as the 1830s, another South Carolinian, John C. Calhoun, led the so-called “nullification” effort to allow states to “nullify” federal laws on tariffs and other issues. It took a fellow Southerner, President Andrew Jackson, to put the lid on that campaign after sending troops down to Charleston.

The tradition is going strong today. Southern conservatives in Congress deserve much of the blame for the recent federal government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion. In the U.S. House vote to re-open government, 73 Southern Republicans voted “No” and only 18 voted “Yes,” according to Zack Beauchamp in ThinkProgress. The much-talked-about Tea Party leading the charge against government speaks with a decidedly Southern accent.

Yet who have these Southern leaders represented through the years? Calhoun and his fellow nullifiers risked civil war in large part to defend planters worried that higher tariffs would cost them British customers for their cotton. Three decades later, hundreds of thousands of Southern farm boys went to war to defend the right of those same planters to own slaves.

When Thurmond and his vice-presidential candidate, Fielding Wright of Mississippi, led the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, a major plank in their platform was opposition to organized labor. Like their predecessors, their hot-button issue may have been race, but they were also determined to protect the interests of the Southern business and political elite.

Today, the Tea Party rank and file rants against the federal government, but just try to take their Social Security and Medicare away from them. Thanks to the demonization of not only Uncle Sam but also labor unions by Fox News and its counterparts here in Mississippi and elsewhere, the progeny of those same Southern farm boys who fought for slavery think they now have to fight for the rights of business owners and corporate CEOs to enrich themselves at the expense of a docile and voiceless workforce.

A South African delegation led by Cedric Gina, president of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, visited Mississippi in October and was shocked at the uphill fight Nissan workers in Canton have to wage just to exercise their legal right to a union election. “We think this is not supposed to be happening in a so-called First World country, a so-called bastion of democracy,” Gina told me in a telephone interview. “To be so fearful, the workers, with no intervention. This is not supposed to be happening.”

NUMSA represents 325,000 workers in South Africa, including 2,000 Nissan employees near Pretoria.

Workers at the Nissan plant in Canton say they have been subjected to repeated meetings with managers who threaten a plant closure and lost jobs if they opt to join the United Auto Workers. Although well paid by Mississippi’s low standards, most of them have gone years without a pay raise and are subjected to arbitrary decisions by management on health and pension benefit changes, work hours, and working conditions.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has gone on record saying he supports outside groups that help keep unions out of his state.  He’s probably happy now that the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has issued a special notice to Nissan workers in Canton warning them of the horrors of joining together and speaking with a united voice.

After a majority of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., indicated their support for a company-and-union-backed, German-style works council at the plant, the same foundation filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging UAW coercion. The UAW says the claims are ridiculous.

A thread that runs through Southern history even stronger than race is class. The ruling class in the South doesn’t tolerate challenges to its rule well—whether that challenge comes from united black people or from united working people.

Editor's Note: This column ran earlier in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss. Image: Senator Strom Thurmond (public domain via
Joseph B. Atkins

Joseph B. Atkins

Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran writer and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Kentucky, 2020), Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008) as well as the novel Casey’s Last Chance (Sartoris Literary Group, 2015). His blog is

  1. When Richard Nixon severed the U.S. dollar from its bands of gold, he thought he was protecting our currency from overseas speculators. It probably didn’t occur to him that the speculators on Wall Street could cause as much or more havoc. But, what he seems to have missed entirely is the fact that it is Capitol Hill which has the U.S. economy on a leash and doles out or rations dollars to facilitate their own electoral prospects.
    Perhaps Nixon didn’t see it because the ostensible transfer of money management to the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 had every appearance of being real. Even today, Congress goes to great lengths to perpetrate the myth that it can only spend what it takes, rather than whatever dollars the Treasury makes; that laundering dollars through the Federal Reserve is an on-going scam which rewards Wall Street and lets Congress ration dollars without much notice.
    The irony of the PPACA is that it’s a work-around, another way to distribute dollars into the economy directly by stripping banks of student lending and their cash funnels, the insurance companies, of some of their profits. The Lords of Capitol Hill are rightly upset because mandatory self-funding programs take the distribution of dollars out of their hands. Soon there will be nothing left but defense contracts with which to reward and punish the electorate.

  2. “Never mind that Thurmond, who died at 101 in 2003, led the Dixiecrat revolt out of the Democratic Party in 1948 and into the Republican Party in the 1960s largely as a reaction against civil rights legislation. Never mind that he was a segregationist superstar during much of the civil rights movement.”

    How ahistorically incurious that you elide the 1950’s, when the Republicans passed Civil Rights legislation as the Democrats rallied the Klan — well into the Sixties, as you know. How dishonest that you lie by omission about Nixon and Goldwater’s record of leadership on behalf of minorities in Arizona and Washington and elsewhere; how sleazy and delusional that you accuse the Tea Party of being racist today. The fact that this website permits you to publish such untruths thoroughly discredits its editors . . . and readers, not to mention your academic department. Why is getting off on telling lies about race so personally gratifying for so many journalists and academicians? It smacks of performativity, if not outright fetish.

    1. Tina – thank you for bringing this oversight to our attention. At the time this story was posted, we didn’t feel it required a vetting of the other politicians of the time since it was principally about the Strom interview and nullification. Most of us forget just how important Nixon and Goldwater’s leadership were in passing civil rights legislation in 1957 until they were against it 1964, which coincidently was just about the time that so many of the racists Democrats became racist Republicans or Segregationists or Libertarians. As for “how sleazy and delusional that you accuse the Tea Party of being racist today,” – we would stand by that had it been in the story, but Mr. Atkins did not state that.

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