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MLK's Effect on Today's Politics

Dr. Martin Luther King is remembered as a civil rights giant and a religious leader, but he's also one of the father's of the modern political map.
Image: Martin Luther King addresses a large crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.
Martin Luther King addresses a large crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Dr. Martin Luther King will be remembered in many different ways on Monday – civil rights giant, religious leader – but from a more basic political perspective Dr. King might be thought of as an important father of the modern American political map.

The civil rights movement Dr. King led was ultimately the driving force behind the flip of the once “Solid South” – as in solidly Democratic – to the Republican Party and was an important player in the reverse flip in the Northeast. And when you look at the numbers, two things are particularly remarkable. First, how sudden the change from Democratic to Republican was in the South. And second, how deep and long-lasting the changes have been.

In the years leading up to 1964, the states that comprise “The South” in Gallup’s polling data consistently over-performed for Democrats against the national average in presidential races. Those states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia – consistently gave a larger percentage of their vote to Democratic presidential candidates than the rest of the country.

Since 1964, Democratic presidential candidates have consistently under-performed in the South – with the exception of 1976 and 1980, when the Democratic presidential candidate was former Southern Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

You can see the moves in the chart below:

The South's Post-Civil Rights Shift

Thomas, Shawna (206081602) / Meet the Press/American Communities Project

The chart shows the percentage of votes for the Democratic presidential candidate in every region in the country from 1952 to 2012 compared to the national figure (in dark blue). Click here for the interactive version of this graph.

There are a few very notable points in those figures. Consider that those southern states actually outperformed the national average in the percentage of votes for Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, in 1960.

Four years later, in 1964, they greatly underperformed for President Lyndon B. Johnson. That’s despite the fact that Mr. Johnson was from Texas and stomped his opponent Sen. Barry Goldwater by 23 percentage points. Mr. Goldwater won only six states in 1964, his home state of Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Meanwhile, the reverse happened on the Eastern seaboard – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. Those states gave Democrat Adlai Stevenson 40% of their vote in 1956. They gave Mr. Johnson 68% in 1964.

The biggest change in that time? The growth of the civil rights movement, including the March on Washington in 1963 where Dr. King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, championed by Dr. King and signed into law by President Johnson.

It’s also interesting to note that while the South over-performed for Mr. Carter, it underperformed for Pres. Bill Clinton, another former Southern governor, in 1992 and 1996. In other words, the electoral map that took shape after the civil rights movement has arguably become more deeply locked-in over time in the region.

There has been movement in some states, namely Virginia and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina, but the basic shifts that came after the civil rights movement have been fairly stable.

That’s doubly true when you look at the six states that might be considered the core of the “Deep South” – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

From 1952 to 1960, the Democratic presidential candidate did remarkably well in those states, beating the Republican candidate in 17 out of 18 possible times (six states in three elections) – and remember that included elections in 1952 and 1956 that were big wins for Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.

The map below shows the 1952 presidential results by state:

Meet the Press/American Communities Project

Click here for a larger version of this map.

From 1964 to 2012, the Democratic candidate won only 13 out of 78 possible times. And since 2000, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a single one of those states.

Below is the familiar 2012 presidential map:

Meet the Press/American Communities Project

Click here for a larger version of the map.

There have been other big changes in American politics over that time of course. The rise of the Christian Right and the growth of Democratic power in the Suburbs, for instance, have both played huge roles in the development of the current red/blue divide in the country.

But looking back at the numbers through time, you can’t ignore the power of the civil rights movement and the role Dr. King played in creating the modern electoral map.