Sunday, November 16, 2008

Blacks & The Republican Party; The Telephone Call That Changed History

There is little I enjoy more than "what if" history games. Basically the game involves taking some historical event and discussing how history would have been changed should that event never have happened. As I look at the exit polls in the 2008 election, I see that McCain only garnered 4% of the African-American vote. Were it not for a slight twist in American history, things could have been much different.

We know from our history books that Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a landslide victory over Republican President Herbert Hoover in 1932. What is rarely discussed is that FDR only received 23% of the black vote in that landslide election. Hoover continued the tradition of Republicans capturing the African-American vote.

The depression hit black communities particularly hard though and by 1936, FDR's government programs brought him new support among black voters. That year he received 71% of the African American vote, while the Republican candidate received 28%.

Although the Depression saw a shift in the allegiance of black voters, Republicans continued to garner a sizable minority of black votes. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, captured 39% of the black vote.

The the 1960 election. the Vice President Richard Nixon, a Republican, faced off with Democrat Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy. Kennedy's civil rights record in the Senate was at best spotty. Kennedy had voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first civil rights act since Reconstruction. The Act was pushed by the Republican Eisenhower administration to protect the voting rights of blacks. Kennedy also voted against a federal lynching law and during the campaign curried favor with segregationist Democrats. Martin Luther King, Jr. had not endorsed a candidate in 1960, and had made positive comments regarding Nixon's support of civil rights. Nixon himself had come out for civil rights in a television ad during the campaign.

In October 1960, King was jailed in Georgia on a probation violation for participating in a sit-in, At the urging of his advisers, JFK called King's pregnant wife to discuss helping King get out of jail. As a result, Kennedy secured the endorsement of King and highlighted his phone call, and Nixon's failure to make a similar call, in a pamphlet passed out at black churches the Sunday before the election. As a result of King's endorsement and Kennedy's exploiting of the phone call, hundreds of thousands of black votes that would have otherwise gone to Nixon went to Kennedy. Kennedy won the 1960 election by a razor thin margin. Almost assuredly King's last minute endorsement made the difference. Still, Nixon ended up with 32% of the black vote that election.

Kennedy's support of civil rights continued to be tepid at best after his election. It wasn't until the television coverage of water cannons and dogs being turned on peaceful black protesters that public opinion shifted in favor of intervention in the South. Then, and only then, did Kennedy start to assert himself on the issue. Still Kennedy's support of civil rights was more rhetoric than substance. It was Democrat President Lyndon Johnson and Republicans in the Congress who deserve the most credit for passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Republicans supported the measure by more than 80% (Democrats support was around 60%) and it was Republicans who helped stop a Democrat filibuster against the bills in the Senate.

Returning to the issue of the phone call, what if it had never been made? King probably would have continued with his neutral position on the election. Kennedy could not have used the issue the way he did to peel off a sizable percentage of the otherwise Republican black vote in the 1960 election. While most of the focus on the 1960 election is on likely vote fraud by Democrats in Chicago and Texas that cost Nixon the election, it is not a stretch to say that King's turning black vote in favor of Kennedy also led to Nixon's defeat.

If Nixon had won the 1960 election, he would have been the President facing down the Southern Governors and other elected officials, almost all of which were Democrats, who insisted on continuing the Jim Crow laws and violently putting down civil rights protests. Unlike Kennedy who was always concerned about losing the support of segregationists in his own party, it is unlikely Nixon would have been politically constrained from taking on those Southern Democrats, especially after the political climate had shifted in favor of civil rights. It is almost certain Nixon, who was considered a moderate in his party, would have joined the moe than 80% of his Republican Party who supported civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. If Nixon had won the 1960 election, historical events and political opportunities would have almost certainly credited him with advancing the civil rights of African-Americans, not Kennedy or Johnson.

But history was destined to be written differently. Kennedy did make the politically-calculated phone call. King endorsed Kennedy and Kennedy won the election. After Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson then took up the by then popular cause of civil rights. In 1964, he faced one of the few Republican Senators who had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater ran a racially-tinged campaign in which he talked about the danger of minorities taking over government. King strongly encouraged African-Americans to vote for Johnson which they did in record numbers. Black support for the Republican presidential nominee plummeted from 32% in 1960 to 6% in 1964. Goldwater only won his own state of Arizona and a handful of states in the Old Confederacy, the first time Republicans had ever won those states since Reconstruction immediately after the civil war.

In 1968, Nixon ran again. This time faced with a strong challenge from third-party segregationist, Alabama Governor George Wallace, Nixon used arguably racially-tinged rhetoric in an attempt to prevent Wallace from winning the south. While Wallace ended up prevailing in many of those old Confederacy states, Nixon won the election.

Since the Johnson-Goldwater election of 1964, Republican presidental candidates have never received more than 15% of the black vote. McCain's 4% support among African-American voters, is less than half of the black support Bush received in 2000 (9%) and 2004 (11%).

Today Democrats like to brag about being the party of civil rights. But in fact, were it not for a phone call that quite likely changed the results of the 1960 election, Richard Nixon and his Republican Party might well be viewed by African-Americans as the heroes of the civil rights movement.

See related posts:

Niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. Corrects the Democrats' Revisionist Civil Rights History (11/15/2008)

Democrats & Civil Rights: A Shameful Legacy (9/28/2008)


TVV said...

Really good theory. I like this article and I also study this topic a lot in my blog.

One point I want to suggest clarification on, though. First, it was King's father who endorsed Kennedy and not King himself. King did not endorse a candidate in the 1960 election and delivered an anti-endorsement of Goldwater in the 1964 election (he wanted to keep the SLCC non-partisan if possible and took pains to do this).

The phone call did cost Nixon the 1960 election. He lost I think about seven states in which the black vote margin in Kennedy's favor grossly overtook the margin of all voters in the state.

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