Montgomery, 1958

Is anyone else here a Nixon nut? It’s not that I particularly like the man – or what he represented, that is. Watergate was the big fundamental breach of trust in our political system. It was the definition of a conspiracy wrought by a totally paranoid egomaniac. That said, both his paranoia and eagerness to please wrought a pretty strange presidential legacy for a 1960s Republican candidate: social policy expenditure rose 44% while seeing a large ebb in defense spending; food stamps were expanded and the Family Assistance Plan was set up (before it was killed by Republican congressmen). LBJ’s Philadelphia Plan was not only kept, but expanded, bolstering Affirmative Action. Increased funding was granted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal regulations tripled in his Presidency: the EPA, OSHA, NTSB and other regulatory boards were all set up on his watch. Hell, he even publicly rallied to get more support for the National Endowment for Arts and Humanities! I could go on, but you get the idea: LBJ’s Great Society was given a pretty good shot.

For me, it’s what makes Nixon all the more fascinating. He was a good politician in the sense that he was a sheer opportunist, but little more. While some say he became more paranoid over the course of his Presidency, I think the campaign trail in 1968 shows otherwise. For the showman, the notion of winning was the apex of his career, and not really the presidency itself. Maybe it’s just me, but the story of Nixon’s Southern Strategy foreshadowed the hallmark opportunism of his time in office. But in order to understand the Southern Strategy, it’s important to start in the South.

 Spring 1958

Ok, so I know we’ve jumped back in time rather considerably (and yes, I’m using the royal “we” on the assumption you’re keeping track, harumph). The world was a considerably different place in 1958 than it was in 1974. Ike was in office. The dream of American post-war prosperity was humming along (for most). But as with many economies, prosperity in the American South came with demographic and social changes – it’s not really that people have more money, it’s that more people have money.

The businesses of Montgomery, AL had become all too aware of this uncomfortable truth between 1955 and 1956, when a boycott of the public transportation system by the city’s most disenfranchised citizens started to cripple the local economy. Not only did African American patrons withdraw support for segregated businesses, but so did investors from other states. Jim Crow could no longer be treated as an ethical inconvenience or merely a topic to be ignored in polite conversation. It was an moral problem, and a big one that people weren’t willing to risk money to support, either directly or indirectly.

The ramifications of the Bus Boycott were not confined to 1955-6. It’s easy to look back and see the “lull” in activism between Rosa Parks’s famous ride and the lunch counter occupations of 1960. But in late 1957, MLK published Stride Toward Freedom, his personal account of the Bus Boycotts. He had been sought by publishers since 1956 to give a written account of the events, but took his time to construct a Ghandian homage and the first “great” work of literature on what many of us would come to call the Civil Rights Movement. More bluntly, Montgomery was making waves and the United States was just starting to grab their boogie boards.

But if there were waves in New York publishers’ offices, there was a storm in Alabama. Unsurprisingly, the nation’s most notorious racists were getting angry – like, John Birch Society, cross-burning, nocturnal white bedsheet KKK redneck angry. Shit really started to hit the fan, and the nation started to notice. MLK’s first publication also coincided with the first gubernatorial election in Alabama since Montgomery. I leave it your imagination how far back the clock turned in political rhetoric.

Much of the South had seen slow but steady enlightenment in the realm of racial politics. FDR’s Southern children had managed to make some recognition that African Americans are in fact human beings, but only just. It really only went so far. Historians tend to call such recognition “racial moderation,” and refer to those who hold such “progressive” views as “moderate.” It’s a pretty sorry sanitization of the grotesque “separate but equal” philosophy taken on by housewives and homeowners associations – if your immediate response is “ew,” you’re right on the money. One politician who occupied this supposed middle ground was Big Jim Folsom. Jim was an alcoholic, a buffoon and kind of an idiot, often bragging at campaign rallies that he had managed to abscond with state funds to buy booze for himself (classy!). That said, his own lack of opposition both to federal programs and gradual (ok, so REALLY gradual) desegregation had won him a reputation in D.C. for being relatively enlightened for a Southern Democrat.

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Jim Folsom and the Strawberry Pickers at a 1954 rally
While Alabamians weren’t terribly happy with his more liberal carpetbagger attitudes, he was charming and always had a good show to put on. Country music was a standard feature at all his shows, known for winning votes through sheer engagement of cultural sensibilities. It should be no surprise that when no fewer than 14 former Folsom aides ran for
governor in 1958, country music played more than a small role. Being a one party system, the fourteen Democratic candidates had to find some way to differentiate themselves from one another, not just to Alabamians, but to the rest of the nation.

So great was the national interest in the Alabama election, that Life Magazine and New York Times correspondents were sent to cover the race. Life Magazine reported, “Anything goes for governor in Alabama, as 14 candidates put on an election revelry with pitchforks, hillbilly bands, kinsfolk and mules… Almost every candidate has a guitar, a group of hillbilly singers or a gag. Before a candidate and his entertainers come to town, a loudspeaker usually precedes them, giving equal billing to the politician and his performers. Before the show starts, the candidates often get lost in all the singing and shouting.” One of the lesser-known candidates in election remarked, “Can’t you just imagine the confusion of a lot of voters when they go to the polls on election day and ain’t able to find the names of their favorite gospel-singing quartet on the ballot?” It’s ridiculous, like something out of O Brother, Where art thou – as if every stereotypically Southern facet of political life has been placed on steroids. It would be funny, if it weren’t also so chilling. Candidate John Patterson won the election that year, not because he had the best band, but because he publicly and explicitly ran on a KKK platform.

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Rebe Gosdin and the Sunny Valley boys at Patterson rally, 1958.
While the racial tensions were high, some of the candidates weren’t so keen to turn up the gas and decry Montgomery as abhorrent. Some historians have argued that the candidates even tried to stay within rather moderate boundaries, and that the exploitation of musical entertainment was a compensation. With the exception of Patterson, it was the music of white solidarity rather than explicit hate speech was more the instrument of choice in 1958. It’s scary to think about, as Patterson went on to endorse Obama in 2009. When asked about his apparent ideological shift, he remarked, “When I became governor, there were 14 of us running for governor that time and all 14 of us were outspoken for segregation in the public schools, … And if you had been perceived not to have been strong for that, you would not have won.”

On Patterson’s heels in the election was none other than George Wallace – uh huh, that one. The man who would go on to become the most hated politician in America. Though still in an embryonic phase of becoming a mini-Hitler, proved exceptional in his own right in the 1958 election. Though he had no prior inroads with the country music industry, he managed to get one of the most celebrated country performers to his side: Minnie Pearl. A colorful, ditzy character from Cullman, Alabama, Minnie Pearl’s (née Sarah Colley) launch into fame came as a direct result of her Opry debut the same day that Nashville’s WSM expanded into commercial short-wave transmission in 1939 (translation: this was the birth of commercial FM radio).

In 1958, Cannon appeared at Wallace’s rallies in her stage persona, wearing her hallmark straw hat with the price tag still attached, but also decked from head to toe in Wallace campaign attire, including a dress embroidered with the words “Win With Wallace.” So outlandish was her outfit, that a fellow stage presence on the campaign trail remarked, “she was using Wallace buttons for britches.”

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While Cannon’s fame was unsurpassed by any of the other performers in 1958, so was her price tag. If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, Wallace spent $30,000 (plus expenses) for ten appearances by Cannon. While it’s common to spend money in campaigns, this was an unprecedented amount. Patterson only spent a total of $6,000 on musicians for the whole campaign (which included an appearance by Roy Acuff). Wallace’s campaign was notoriously short on cash but was outspending his opponents fivefold on… entertainment. The money for Minnie Pearl was an issue from the get go. Just one week following Cannon’s first appearance at Dale County High School, Wallace’s campaign manager had to arrange for the board of directors of the nearest bank to front a cheque to cover Cannon’s expenses. When Wallace signed Cannon on for a second contract in early May, she drafted additional Grand Ole Opry members Little Jimmy Dickens and Hank Snow. Wallace had to do get another bank favor in order to write a check for $12,000 to their managers in Nashville.

It’s astonishing. Wallace simply didn’t have this money to spend. But such was the extent of Wallace’s newfound willingness to court Nashville music industry figures, that he spent the majority his campaign funds (his total budget, including contributions, came in just under  $50,000) on country music and entertainment alone – and really on only one performer. In the end, Wallace didn’t win. He tuned in to the tone of public opinion in Alabama too late in the race. “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.”

After the election results were announced, he uttered the famous words that would form his legacy: “I’ll never be outniggered again.”

Minnie spent many hours on the phone with Wallace over the next few years, plotting out entertainment strategies for his plans to run for office in 1962. One can’t quite know the reason, but Wallace remained committed not just to upping his rhetoric, but symbolizing white solidarity with music. Minnie Pearl and her colleagues from the Opry would be the catalyst for forming the first real musical strategy in campaign politicking.

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Wallace Grabs Minnie’s attention at the Opry, March 16 1974.

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