Think radio doesn't matter? Then you weren't listening to NPR's history of the Democratic Party, a two-parter by veteran newsman Robert Trout, aired on WUNC last week. It brought back a piece of history so vividly that I had to pull my car to the roadside until I could catch my breath.
Trout's report included recordings from radio coverage of the 1948 Democratic convention, in which Southern delegates walked out in defiance of the civil-rights plank in the party platform. You can hear Southerners bawling speeches about "state's rights" and indignantly objecting to proposed laws against lynching, the poll tax and other types of racial segregation. A delegate from Georgia decries the "federal fiat" that would "revolutionize the political, economic and social relations between whites and Negroes in the South. Passage of these laws," he says, "will strip once-proud states of their last remaining rights and reduce them to a state of abject vassalage to Washington. You shall not crucify the South on this cross of civil rights!"
Declaring that the party couldn't elect a president without their electoral votes, 47 Southern delegates walked out with the Confederate flag flying above their heads. Many didn't cast their votes for Truman that year, but nominated Strom Thurmond for president and substituted his name for Truman's on four state ballots. It was the moment when the word "Dixiecrat" was coined, and the beginning of the political transformation of the South, which had been Democratic for 100 years, into a region with a two-party system.
No one younger than I (I was 8 years old) could possibly have heard and remembered these hideous voices. But the whole country heard them on the radio that year, and the experience must have been electrifying. Remember, this was before TV and the searing images it brought us in the '60s. It might have been the nation's first simultaneous experience of Southern racism.
NPR has resurrected that moment in history, and the importance of Trout's program can't be exaggerated. Even if you are a student of Southern history and read these speeches in books, it would take an incredible amount of research to be able to hear the ugliness of this sound. Now it's on the World Wide Web.