The “States’ Rights” Term Conservatives Frequently Use Has a Dark, Racist Origin

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During the 2008 presidential election, both members of the Republican ticket, John McCain Sarah Palin, said that they were advocates of “states’ rights.” This was not terribly surprising, considering that every Republican elected to the White House for the past 30 years has extolled the virtues of states’ rights at one point or another.

But what many don’t know– or have forgotten– is that the term “states’ rights” actually has a sinister and deeply racist origin.

Above: Riiiiiiight.

The phrase was originally used as a code word by conservatives to court southern racists, assuring them that they were supporters of their right to have as much discrimination in their state laws as they wanted. In other words, they believed in the individual states’ right to be institutionally racist and they wouldn’t let the federal government disrupt them.

Southern political pamphlets using the term date back to the 1800s, even before the Civil War. The words even adorned the official state flag of Georgia in the mid-1800s.

During the Civil Rights Movement, conservative governor George Wallace proudly declared his support for “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” but later said he wished that he had declared his support of the more subtle “States’ rights now! States’ rights tomorrow! States’ rights forever!”

Similarly, former Republican National Committee Chair (and Ronald Reagan/George H. W. Bush advisor) Lee Atwater admitted in an interview that “states’ rights” was deliberately coded terminology. “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires.”

“So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff,” Atwater continued. “You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Why was Atwater so blunt? At the time of the interview, he was told he’d be quoted anonymously, although his identity as the source was revealed some 25 years later.

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6 comments on “The “States’ Rights” Term Conservatives Frequently Use Has a Dark, Racist Origin”

  1. Norm from GA says:

    Would “Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution” be more politically correct?

  2. pj Connolly says:

    Great post. I’ve got to wonder, if we’re the UNITED States of America, who do individual states feel they can do whatever they want?

  3. MJ Blake says:

    Your ‘reporting’ couldn’t be more biased and your display of ignorance of history is appalling. Republicans freed the slaves. The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan. Democrats have the history of racial hatred and bigotry. Regarding ‘States Rights’,have you ever heard of the Tenth Amendment? Nice attempt at rewriting history. It is sad the number of people you have mislead. I hope they will do their own research and not take your word as gospel. You should change your website name to ‘History That Your High School Textbooks Left Out…because it isn’t true.”

  4. Ken O. says:

    What, are we picking out the few racist Republicans? This is written as if Republicans were the voice of racism back then. Fact is, through my research, Most racists appeared to be Democrats and Republicans often fought against it. It is my understanding that even Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican. What say you of this suspiciously slanted “history course”?

  5. Forgotten History Blog Admin says:

    It’s a well known fact that the conservative-liberal parties in the US have switched from their origins. Democrats used to be conservative, and Republicans used to be the liberals. That changed during the civil rights era.

  6. pjh95811 says:

    I was going to use this site as a reference for interesting history stories, but after reading this horribly biased, inaccurate entry, I won’t be back. The Republicans have always been the party in favor of civil rights for blacks. The Democrats have consistently voted against civil rights, they started the Ku Klux Klan, they were the ones doing the lynching. LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but grudgingly and not because he or his fellow Democrats cared about blacks — they only cared about power. Also, the parties never switched sides. For example, Robert Byrd, Ku Klux Klan member and Democrat senator, was a Democrat in the Senate until the day he died — he never “swirched sides” and became a Republican. Do your research.

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