John Hall Buchanan Jr.: A Deep South Republican Who Went Moderate

The 1964 election was overall a loss for the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater only won six states in the presidential election and the GOP sustained significant losses in the House and minor losses in the Senate. However, it didn’t go badly everywhere for them. For the first time since Reconstruction the Republican candidate won in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina and did so for the first time ever in Georgia. This was due almost exclusively to Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and President Johnson’s signing of it. Believe it or not, Goldwater had coattails in the region, with the GOP picking up a seat in Mississippi and Georgia as well has having a Senate party flip in South Carolina, which would be followed by a House flip in 1965. However, in no state was the impact greater than in Alabama, which went from a House delegation that was 8-0 Democrat to 5-3 Republican. This election didn’t win the GOP the Deep South, but it made them a realistic option. One of the new Congressmen was John Hall Buchanan Jr. (1928-2018), a pastor from Birmingham, one of the most segregated cities in the nation and a hotbed of civil rights activism. Although he would start as a conservative opposed to civil rights legislation, he would not stay this way.

Buchanan proved one of the staunchest opponents of the Johnson Administration and opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Medicare but even in his first term he proved committed to ending KKK violence in the South: as a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities he successfully pushed with Democrat Charles Weltner of Atlanta, Georgia, an investigation of the Klan. The FBI credited this investigation for the plummeting of Klan membership. In 1966, he was one of three Alabama Republicans reelected. His MC-Index score for the Johnson years was a 98%. Buchanan’s attitude on federal civil rights legislation began to change during the Nixon Administration, with him voting to retain the Philadelphia Plan and for anti-discrimination legislation. He also became more open to voting for liberal domestic legislation and became known as the most favorable Alabama representative to foreign aid, holding that the choice was between feeding people and not feeding them. Buchanan supported Soviet dissidents as well as opposed Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia.

As the 1970s progressed, Buchanan’s record moderated more and more and this coincided with the growth in the power of the black vote in Birmingham. He supported Title IX and in 1975, he voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. By the Carter Administration, he had become a centrist with socially liberal positions, including supporting the use of busing to achieve desegregation, support for government funding of abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment. During the Nixon Administration, he had opposed busing. His social liberalism rubbed party conservatives the wrong way, and they tried to oust him without success in 1978. In the Carter era, his MC-Index score was a 48%, a whopping fifty-point drop from the last time he served with a Democratic president.

In 1980, conservatives recruited Albert Lee Smith Jr., a former member of the John Birch Society, to run against Buchanan in the Republican primary. Buchanan lost the contest in good part due to his support for giving away the Panama Canal. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 77%. Although Smith was elected in 1980, it was by a much narrower margin than Buchanan had received in the past and the district proved too Democratic for him as he lost reelection in 1982. The district’s support for Democrats would harden throughout the 1980s and the 6th district wouldn’t be won back by Republicans until the 1992 election, when many of the black neighborhoods were carved out for a new majority-black 7th district and more white suburbs around Birmingham and Tuscaloosa were brought in. Buchanan did end up serving in the Reagan Administration as a delegate to the UN Human Rights Committee but also served on the board of directors for People for the American Way, a liberal organization meant to counter the political efforts of Christian conservatives. This was another shift in a liberal direction from his record in Congress, as in 1971 he had voted for a school prayer amendment. In 2006, Buchanan lobbied Congress to once again extend the Voting Rights Act.


Derbes, B.J. John Buchanan Jr. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

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Former Alabama congressman, Baptist minister dies. (2018, March 9). Birmingham Real-Time News.

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