History Lesson

The Party of Lincoln …

But not of Hayes, Harrison, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, or Bush. 

Now that its convention is over, will the Republican Party keep pretending that it likes black people? As the Philadelphia story would have it, attracting black voters simply means returning to a proud history from which the GOP has only recently deviated. In truth, the history of the Republican Party’s relationship with blacks is one of a bright start followed by a gradual but steady decline.

In 1854, the Republican Party was founded mainly to end slavery, and for two decades it honorably promoted African-American equality. Its first presidential nominee, pioneer James C. Frémont, took a staunch anti-slavery stand in 1856 and ran well, paving the way for Abraham Lincoln’s election four years later. Lincoln was no radical. He believed white men superior to blacks and opposed the outright abolition of slavery. But he wanted to stop slavery’s westward expansion in the hope that it would die out—a position that won him endorsements from leading African-Americans such as Frederick Douglass and 40 percent of the overall vote, enough for victory in a four-way race.

After the Civil War, the “Radical Republicans,” who oversaw the Reconstruction of the South, brought blacks into electoral politics. Blacks naturally joined the GOP rather than the white supremacist Southern Democrats. In these golden years, black Republicans got the vote and even won elective office (Mississippi elected the nation’s first African-American senator in 1870). Led by the GOP, the nation ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which ended slavery and gave black men full citizenship and the franchise.

The GOP’s abandonment of African-Americans commenced with the presidential election of 1876. The party had already been subordinating its agenda of black equality to that of cultivating Northern industrialists when Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, to resolve a contested election, agreed to the notorious Compromise of 1876. In exchange for their support, Hayes promised Southern Democrats to withdraw federal troops from the South and to let them treat blacks as they pleased. Almost immediately, white supremacist, or “redeemer” Democrats regained power, heralding the reign of Jim Crow. Ironically, the compromise also crippled black Republicanism, as state Republican parties, to compete for white votes, engaged in racial me-tooism, purging blacks from the party or shunting them into “Black and Tan” delegations whose legitimacy was.

By the Progressive Era, both the Republicans and the Democrats were generally uninterested in helping African-Americans. One issue that couldn’t be ignored—though the parties tried—was the horror of lynching, which had become rampant in the post-Reconstruction South. Anti-lynching laws marked the last major civil rights issue on which Republicans were out in front.

In 1920 Leonidas Dyer, a Missouri Republican from a largely black St. Louis district, introduced an anti-lynching bill, which the new Republican president, Warren Harding, endorsed. The House passed it in January 1922 (231-199, with only 17 Republicans opposing and eight Northern or border-state Democrats in support). Yet even though they controlled the Senate too, the GOP couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pull out the stops to pass the law. While Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts supported the bill, the powerful Idaho Republican William Borah opposed it as meddling in states’ rights and helped Southern Democrats kill it. The Borah-Lodge rift foretold a schism in the GOP between Northeastern liberals and a Midwestern and Western Old Guard that would later scramble the party’s racial politics.

Meanwhile, blacks were fleeing the South for Northern cities. There, the Democrats’ political machines delivered services and patronage to immigrants in exchange for their votes, and Democratic bosses shrewdly absorbed blacks into their system. In contrast, Republicans missed another opportunity. Their machines (yes, they existed too) reacted coolly to black voters’ demands and to black politicians’ ambitions—leading many to leave the party.

The realignment crystallized under President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1932, FDR won just 23 percent of the black vote. Yet he swiftly bolstered his black support. Gestures such as consulting a “black cabinet” of unofficial African-American advisers surely helped, but more important were his economic relief programs. The Depression hit black Americans disproportionately hard, and FDR’s relief programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration, gave them much-needed aid and jobs. A popular song among Depression-era blacks made it plain:

Roosevelt! You’re my man!
When the time come I ain’t got a cent
You buy my groceries
And pay my rent.Mr. Roosevelt, you’re my man!

In Congress, meanwhile, Northern and Western Democrats took the lead on progressive racial legislation; it was two Democratic senators who in 1934 introduced the next major anti-lynching bill. Between 1932 and 1936, writes historian Nancy J. Weiss in Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR, “Roosevelt and the New Deal changed the voting habits of black Americans in ways that have lasted to our own time.”

Some Republicans still grasped desperately for black ballots. In an ideologically divided party, liberal leaders, such as presidential nominees Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, incorporated pro-civil-rights language into the platforms. But their efforts paled next to Harry Truman’s. Truman, the strongest civil rights president the nation had seen, won 70 percent of the black vote in 1948 with a bold, progressive racial agenda. He supported a Fair Employment Practices Commission to fight job discrimination and desegregated the military by executive order.

By the 1950s racial liberalism in the GOP was fading fast. Dwight Eisenhower, a conservative (though) on race, opposed Truman on key issues. In 1945 Eisenhower testified before Congress against integrating the military, and as president he resisted reviving the FEPC. He opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. (Bowing to the inevitable, the 1956 GOP platform endorsed Brown.) Ike remarked that “you cannot change people’s hearts merely by laws”—repeatedly justifying his inaction in the face of rising demands for civil rights laws.

(At last week’s convention, Bush adviser Condoleezza Rice said the Alabama Republican Party of 1952 registered her father to vote when the Democrats wouldn’t. That may be true, but in much of the deep South then the GOP was virtually nonexistent. In Georgia, writes the historian Taylor Branch, “Barry Goldwater had trouble drawing crowds to fill even barber shops.”)

Entering the 1960 election the Democrats, behind such leaders as Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Herbert Lehman of New York, had become the unquestioned party of civil rights. Richard Nixon, who always overestimated his own popularity with blacks, still hoped to fare well—Jackie Robinson, for one, endorsed him—and he probably had a stronger civil rights record than John F. Kennedy. But JFK courted the black vote, famously phoning Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, Coretta, when the civil rights leader was jailed. Kennedy would have commanded the black vote anyway, but the closeness of the election led analysts to mythologize the phone call as critical.

The battle over the 1964 Civil Rights Act marked the last hurrah for racial liberalism within the GOP. President Lyndon Johnson, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the liberal Democrats decided the time was ripe to pass a bill with teeth, their Southern party-mates be damned. While the Republican leadership took a wait-and-see position, younger GOP congressmen such as New York’s John Lindsay (who later became a Democrat) and Maryland’s Charles Mathias worked on the bill, helping it to passage in the House over Southern opposition.

In the Senate, Southern Democrats predictably undertook a filibuster, which boded ill. Never had civil rights advocates mustered the two-thirds supermajority needed to close off debate. At first, few Republican senators were willing to vote to end the filibuster, believing strongly in states’ rights. But behind the scenes Vice President Hubert Humphrey negotiated with Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a supporter of the bill. Humphrey claimed that he courted Dirksen as avidly as he had wooed his wife, Muriel. Dirksen promised to round up enough Republican holdouts if Humphrey would attach amendments paying lip service to state and local control. The deal was struck, and after more than two months the Senate voted 71-29 for cloture, with six Republicans joining 23 Southern Democrats in opposition (44 Democrats and 27 Republicans voted aye).

Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, the Democrat who led the opposition, said Dirksen had “killed off a rapidly growing Republican Party in the South.” But Russell had it backward. Significantly, the opponents of the 1964 law included the GOP’s future leaders, including Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and Texas Senate aspirant George H.W. Bush. They knew their electoral success depended on conservative support in the South and West.

Goldwater’s “Operation Dixie” in his 1964 presidential race may have meant surrendering the black vote; LBJ won 94 percent that year. But it bore fruit four years later. Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern Strategy” of 1968 became the blueprint for Ronald Reagan’s Southern inroads and Lee Atwater and George Bush’s Willie Hortonism. So, if George W. Bush, running under the guidance of Atwater’s protégé Karl Rove, can reverse that trend it will be more than a change in his party’s line. He will be declaring, truly, that this is not his father’s Republican Party.