Sunday, September 28, 2008

Democrats & Civil Rights: A Shameful Legacy

Today, I recalled a conversation I had a couple years ago. I was in my health club locker room resting after a vigorous workout. A few lockers away from me, a conversation about politics taking place. The speaker, an African-American man of about 55, spoke passionately about the upcoming election declaring he would never vote Republican. When asked why, he said he remembered traveling as a young man through the South and encountering segregated hotels and “whites only” signs in restaurants. He said he never forgot what that experience was like. He blamed Republicans for supporting Jim Crow laws that made legal segregation and discrimination possible.

A wiser man would have bit his tongue and let the comment go. Remaining silent though doesn’t always come easy to me, especially when the comment I knew was blatantly historically false. I politely pointed out to the man that those southern elected officials he complained of were not Republican, but were Democrat. He accepted my historical correction without much comment. I doubt I changed his animosity toward Republicans though. I walked away from that experience wondering how many people believed that the history of the Democratic Party was one of valiantly defending civil rights while the Republicans fought to preserve the offspring of slavery – legal segregation and discrimination. In fact just the opposite is true.

The Democrats' history on civil rights is a shameful one. After the close of Reconstruction in the South, the Democratic Party took over the region by threatening and intimidating Republican elected officials and voters. During Reconstruction, blacks in the South voted overwhelmingly Republican. Many of the Republicans elected from the South were black. The end of Reconstruction brought the curtain down on two-party competition in the old states of the Confederacy. For more than the next 100 years, the Democratic Party was the only party in the South.

During that century of one party dominance of the region, the Democrats enacted laws mandating segregation. Any attempts blacks made to reassert political power in the region were curtailed by numerous measures adopted by Democrat-dominated legislatures. These included poll taxes, the “White Primary,” literacy tests, etc. Locally, Democrat officials blocked blacks from voting by harassment and intimidation of those who dared try to register. Even as late as the 1960s there were counties in Mississippi, for example, that, although they were majority black, only a tiny percent of those blacks were registered.

President John Kennedy, far from being a leader in the civil rights arena, was dragged kicking and screaming into the debate on the issue. As a Senator, he had opposed a federal anti-lynching law. As a candidate for president he had not supported civil rights legislation for fear of angering white Democrats in the south. It was only when the political winds changed in the early 1960s that JFK came out in favor of the civil rights bill.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 are seen as the triumph of Democrat President Lyndon Johnson. But in fact, both bills enjoyed much wider support among Republicans than Democrats. Over 80% of Republicans supported those two bills, while Democratic support was in the low 60s. The key member of Congress who helped carry those bills was not a Democrat, but a Republican, conservative Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Southern Democrats had conducted a filibuster against the bill. Dirksen and the Republicans helped break the filibuster.

The other day, I heard a commentator say that after the civil rights bills, the Republicans immediately took over the South and have dominated it ever since. That simply isn’t correct. Although Republican presidential fortunes in the South turned around in the 1970s, Democrats continued to dominate the region at the other levels of government. It’s only been within the last 20 years that Republicans have become competitive with Democrats in Southern congressional and state legislative districts as well as state-wide offices.

In the political spin Democrats use, Republicans started winning the South because it adopted the racist and segregationist policies that Democrats had abandoned. It is simple-minded rhetoric, backed up by no proof whatsoever. The fact is that many Democrats in the south only voted Democrat because of the history of the Civil War and the fact the party post-Civil War pushed racist, segregationist policies they favored. When the Democrats abandoned these racist, segregationist policies, the reason these conservative voters were voting Democrat was removed. Southerners did not start voting Republican because the GOP adopted the Southern Democrats racist agenda. They started voting Republican because Democrats abandoned their racist agenda.

I have always said that the greatest spin in political history is how the Democrats have persuaded people that their party in fact was the great champion of civil rights. History says otherwise. The fact the Democrats have nominated an African-American for President, speaks well that the party of slavery and segregation has taken the final step in casting aside its shameful racist history. For that, everyone, Republicans and Democrats, should applaud.


Gary R. Welsh said...

Great analysis, Paul. How many minutes before Wilson Allen arrives to pour cold water on it?

Anonymous said...

It is the media that pushes the lies -day and day out the constant drumbeat.
Let's see how far this gets out of this blog. It should be sent everywhere to all Democrats but you know even though they are informed, people will still stay with failed policies and lies. We can't get rid of the beliefs once they are entrenched.
The brainwashing is almost complete.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Gary, I don't think Wilson has found my blog yet. If he has, hopefully I've headed off his lame argument that the Republicans became popular in the South by adopting the Democrats' racist policies.

Anonymous said...

[NBRA] National Balck Republcian Associations website has the history of the Republican Party and its support of the Civil Rights Movement from late 1800s to present day, and some interesting facts regarding the democrats who have fought legislation on behalf of African Americans.

Anonymous said...

excuse Typos! Black Republicans

Anonymous said...

Nice history lesson, Professor Paul. Could be longer and more detailed. A chapter in a book? A book itself? Keep it up. Set the record straight.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Actually Anon, it is part of a chapter in a book I wanted to write on the subject, but never got around to it. This would have been a perfect election to release it. It's a story that needs to be told.

insertcleverid said...

"From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that...but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The More Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe white will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without the prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."

Kevin Phillips, Nixon Strategist.
Nixon's Southern strategy 'It's All In the Charts'
By James Boyd
New York Times May 17, 1970; ProQuest Historical Newspapers the New York Times (1851 - 2003) pg. 215

vocal patriot said...

Paul, the democrat party's was not as much racism as it was thugism. so, they put the race thing on the shelf but the coercive methods they used then is still the democrat strategy today. now it's black panther militants to scare folks. we're lucky noone was injured this time, but it's going to get more contentious as time goes on. and I feel that race will continue to take the back seat and government control will be the underlying issue of the future.