by Marion Marks
Growing up in the South is both a blessing and a curse, particularly for those who peel back the layers of the past and examine the evolution of the politics and the modern Republican Party. For those who have been here since the 1950’s 2015-2016 has been a stressful and often painful year.
In 1952, Charlton Lyons headed the “Democrats for Eisenhower,” but, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate that election. However, I did get to later have a better understanding of the evolution of the Republican party during that time. Prior to Lyons, it was stated that the Louisiana GOP could hold a convention in a phone booth, serve fried chicken, and there would be plenty of room to dance. Things have changed drastically since then.
In 1961 Republican Lyons, a Shreveport oilman, won 45 percent of the votes in the special election against the Joe D. Waggonner, a Democrat in Louisiana’s 4th congressional district race for the US House of Representatives. This was the closest a Republican had come in a federal race since Reconstruction and marked a high-water post for many years. The contest received national attention because Republicans were not a well-known commodity in the south. This seat opened when Overton Brooks died in office, and the Democrats were somewhat disorganized in backing a single candidate. Black citizens were still disenfranchised through registration policies at the parish level, however registration drives in effective numbers were on the horizon.
Lyons was considered an “enlightened” politician, although he still did not advocate for black enfranchisement. Every southern community was required to deal with the evolution of the two-party system, but Louisiana evolution has been the result of divisive, brutal racial politics as much as any power plays.
In Louisiana, we regularly saw the power side of politics, as too many still voted along racial lines and the “Party of Lincoln” has become closely aligned to a David Duke mentality in some ways.
The Republican Party that I remember in 1964 Louisiana had the first serious Republican candidate for governor, Charlton Lyons. Lyons drew over 36% of the white vote and a majority of black votes. Lyons did far better in North Louisiana and gained credibility, partly because he was aligned with Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican to carry the state in a presidential election. However, the Dixiecrats and the affiliation of the KKK muddied political party allegiances.
Things changed and the Eisenhower-Lyons foundation Republicans carried a state-wide election when Dave Treen was elected governor – the first Republican since Reconstruction to be elected to statewide office. Since then, with fewer recent exceptions, Republicans have captured the majority of statewide offices.
It seems fitting that Donald Trump is masterfully charming the David Duke element, who see Trump entertainment and charm without having to claim to know much about David Duke and history. It seems so simple for Trump to look the other way whenever Duke mouthes his populist chants. After all, Trump doesn’t read, something he probably finds offensive, because when challenged to quote a source, he ignores the issue with a witty quip. “Does Trump actually read anything?” would be a good question to eek an honest answer.
Louisiana and the country may successfully negotiate a path from David Duke, but voters must be regularly reminded of the dangers Duke represents. Trump, unfortunately, if elected would be a far greater danger to public who seem to look little beyond the entertainment value of Trump.
Charlton Lyons’ best run was his gubernatorial campaign waged in that winter of 1964, even if he was running as a strong segregationist. FBI documents revealed rumors that Gov. McKeithen paid the KKK to avoid violence in the 1964 election. The Republican nominee posted billboards which declared “Everybody Can Vote for Charlton Lyons,” because he had to inform Louisiana’s Democratic voters even at that time represented by more than 98 percent of the registrants, that they had a choice in the general election that year, a phenomenon widely unknown in Louisiana since Reconstruction. The party’s 1960 nominee, Francis Grevemberg, who was also a former Democrat, had finished with only 17 percent of the vote against Jimmie Davis. And that 17 percent was almost all backlash vote in protest against Davis by other Democrats.
Democratic nominee John McKeithen at first warned voters that they were required to vote for him as the party standard-bearer because their participation in a party primary carried with it a loyalty oath to the eventual nominee. This was really meaningless, but Lyons cited Section 671, Title 18 of Louisiana Revised Statutes which states that voters are free to support any candidate of their choice in a general election. McKeithen noted that he, at forty-five, was a generation younger than the 69-year-old Lyons.
McKeithen claimed that the GOP consisted of “a handful of men who are attempting to take over this state government and are counting on Democratic voters staying home on March 3.” Lyons said that his gubernatorial candidacy was predicated on “preserving for the young people the same opportunities I had to start with nothing… and build success for themselves…”
In February 1964, two Alabama Republicans, James D. Martin of Gadsden, who had made a particularly strong U.S. Senate bid in 1962, and state party chairman John Grenier of Birmingham, attended a Lyons fund-raising dinner held in Shreveport. Martin’s claim that a Republican governor would provide regular inter-party competition seemed a compelling but not-yet-ripe argument.
Numerous Republicans rode the party reformation movement to win southern governorships after 1966. These winners were Winthrop Rockefeller in Arkansas and Claude R. Kirk, Jr., in Florida, but both lost reelection bids. The prevailing weakness of the GOP at the time was demonstrated by their inability to win and maintain majorities of significant duration in their state legislatures.
Lyons most significant national backing came from California’s Ronald W. Reagan, whose fame was from Hollywood and as recent host of CBS’s General Electric Theater. Reagan was not willing to fly at the time to Louisiana, so he made the trip by train, which required several days of dedication. Reagan was accompanied by his wife, Nancy and photos documenting this visit are significant to Republican party history.
The stops for Lyons occurred ten months before Reagan delivered his soon to be famous party advertisement on the eve of the election, “A Time for Choosing”, on national television on October 27, 1964, to promote Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid against President Lyndon B. Johnson. This speech was credited with catapulting Reagan into the limelight of California politics, pushing him to the Governor’s office and later to become president. Like Lyons, Reagan was a former Democrat who switched party allegiance in 1962 at the peak of the Eisenhower tide.
Charlton Lyons, Jr., indicated he could not recall how his father met Reagan but believed the two had been friends for several years before the 1964 campaign. Reagan’s support of Lyons would later be used to attack him as Lyons was easily identified as a segregationist. Gore Vidal in the 1968 televised debate with William F. Buckley, Jr. drove home this distinction.
The nation and Louisiana have struggled with these labels, but Donald Trump seems to have hammered home the segregationist title which David Duke has ridden and the GOP will require many years to overcome this unfortunate debacle.