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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Claude Pepper, February 1, 1974. Interview A-0056. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Explanations for the South's shift to the right

Pepper believes that the major change in southern politics between 1948 and 1974 is a trend toward conservatism. He started to see this change when, in 1944, as a Roosevelt supporter, he started to see his own support from voters flagging. In 1950, Pepper lost his Senate seat. He thinks this ideological shift stemmed from opposition to civil rights, and, ironically, the New Deal's amelioration of the South's problems. Fewer problems made southerners less interested in an active federal government.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Claude Pepper, February 1, 1974. Interview A-0056. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well, during this period since 1948, what has been the major changes that you have seen in southern politics and in Florida politics?
Well, along about that time, perhaps a bit before, the South was beginning to revert to the attitude of conservatism which had so long characterized the dominant attitude in the South. While we did have a populist movement back in the early part of the century, it never did take the whole South. It was a sporadic movement which died out pretty soon. But I recall that in '44, in my Senate race, I was a staunch supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal, and my majority, although I won in the first primary, was considerably reduced over what it had previously been. I attributed that to the growing strength of the combination against labor, the growing conservative attitude, the growing departure from the principles and policies of Roosevelt, especially since Truman, whatever good qualities he had, he had many, as an executive, he wasn't the kind of a political leader who could bring a large volumn of people along with him as Roosevelt could. So, with no dynamic, magnetic personality like Roosevelt to lead in the liberal cause, I noticed even as early as '44 that the trend was developing strongly toward conservatism. And by 1950, there were six . . . I'm speaking of the whole country now, there were six senior Senators defeated. I was one of them. And the basic issue was National Health Insurance, civil rights, liberal attitudes favoring labor, minimum wage and all that sort of thing. Adequate hospital and medical care for the people, those were things were basically the issues. And of course, the McCarthy stuff was simply the coloration of it. It was an excuse, it was simply a manifestation of that extreme right-wing conservative attitude that was beginning to grow stronger and stronger. And since that time, we have seen more Republicans elected. We have had a Republican governor who turned out to be a failure, but we had a Republican governor, we've got a Republican United States Senator now from Florida. Of course, as early as '28, Florida went for Hoover and Florida has been for the Republican ticket in most of the presidential elections since that time. Not all, I mean that it went for Roosevelt all through his time and I think maybe one time for Truman. But we've seen that growing sentiment of conservatism in the South while some other parts of the country that had been previously Republican, like some of the New England states, have been getting more Democratic. Looks like a lot of the South has been getting more and more Republican.
To what do you attribute that Republican development?
Well, I don't know. It's kind of hard to figure out. It may be that there is a legacy of a sort of conservatism. 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 humanitariansim 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. For example, I supported civil rights in Florida. I was one of the few, if not the only, southern Senator who did. Men like Hill and Sparkman from Alabama who were here a long time together, they never did anything that favored civil rights. They always participated in filibusters, they always voted against every civil rights bill that came up. They survived as relatively liberal men because they took the locally approved position on civil rights. I didn't do that. So, I had the anti-civil rights people on my neck as well as the anti-labor people and the pro-doctor people and all those other people. And so, that's one of the things. And then I guess that another thing was that due to Roosevelt's leadership, and emphasis on the problems of the South, a lot of our problems have ameliorated. Not solved, ameliorated. The South wasn't in as bad shape as it was when Roosevelt came in, even for awhile there after. So, maybe they didn't appreciate so much the need for a government that tried to provide for the welfare of all the people. I don't know how you account for the conservative attitude or philosophy. What is it that gives men a philosophy? I have never understood why the South, which needs help so much and has profited and prospered so much by the help that it got from the Roosevelt administrations and some subsequent administrations, how the South on anything other than civil rights, even assuming that they might be justified in some respects for taking a very conservative attitude on civil rights, how they could on purely economic issues, take a conservative attitude. And yet right over here on the floor of the House or the Senate, you'll find that a great many, sometimes a very large number, of the southern representatives who will vote no on a purely economic issue. And yet, the South, while it is growing, the level of income is rising, the industries are being added to and all that, I just can't understand why southern representatives so often align themselves against progress and improvement on purely economic lines.