The Party of Lincoln’s Record on Racial Justice
Spielberg’s Critically Acclaimed Film Avails Historical Reality Check
BY PAUL TROUT, Ph D
With the release and critical acclaim of Steven Spielberg's stunning film Lincoln, one wonders if Blacks, Whites, Democrats and Republicans are not confused.
As this movie makes clear, it was the Republican Party (frequently labeled as racist) that passed the constitutional amendment ending slavery (in 1865) against the strident opposition of northern Democrats. But isn’t it the Democrat Party that is the protector of civil rights?
Well, the historical record tells a different story, and raises the question about how the party of segregation got the right to tattoo the party of Lincoln with the scarlet “R”.
The Republican Party (1854) was created to protect Blacks from Democrats (sorry, but that's the only way to put it). The Democrat Party passed the Fugitive Slave Law (1854), the Kansas/Nebraska Act (1854), which allowed territories to vote to allow slavery, and it supported the Dred Scott decision (1857), that proclaimed Blacks to be non citizens.
Republicans wanted none of this. Besides passing the Thirteenth Amendment, Congressional Republicans also passed the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), making Blacks full citizens of the United States, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), guaranteeing Blacks the right to vote. It also passed the first civil rights bill (1866) and several measures protecting Blacks in the post-war South. In gratitude, Blacks overwhelmingly voted for Republicans.
Democrats wanted none of this. So, the Party came up with the best vote-suppressing device it ever devised—the Ku Klux Klan (1866). Historian Eric Foner describes the Klan as “a military force serving the interests of the Democratic Party.” Thanks to Klan lynchings, the Republican vote in six heavily Black counties in Mississippi in the election of 1876 plunged from over 14,000 to a mere 723. By 1904, the number of Black Republican voters in Louisiana had shrunk from 130,000 to a mere 1,342. By 1877, the Democrat party had seized control in every southern state, and for nearly a hundred years the “solid South” was reliably Democrat and opposed to civil rights for Blacks (“Jim Crow” segregation laws, etc.).
Naturally, I'm simplifying a complex historical record, but this summary does not distort the essential truth about the two parties in the nineteenth century. Coming to the twentieth century, we find that the past was prologue.
Let's start with the Dems. Since 1840, the Democrat Party has had 43 national political platforms, 25 of which defended slavery, warned of “negro supremacy,” encouraged loyalty to segregation, expressed hostility to Black voting rights, opposed anti-lynching laws, and supported poll taxes. There were so many Klansmen at the 1924 National Democrat Convention in New York that it was dubbed the “Klan Bake.”
All three post-Civil War Democrats elected president before Harry Truman—Grover Cleveland, Wood-row Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt—were supported by southern segregationists. Roosevelt admitted that Klansmen were among his “best friends and supporters.”
In 1894 President Cleveland eviscerated what was left of the civil rights bills passed by Republicans after the Civil War. “Progressive” Woodrow Wilson barred Blacks from serving in the Federal government. Roosevelt excluded a significant portion of Black workers from Social Security coverage, refused to support Republican-sponsored anti-lynching legislation, banned Blacks from White House press conferences, and segregated his Warm Springs retreat. All three Democrats appointed notorious racists and Klan members to everything from the Supreme Court to Cabinet positions.
Not to say that the Democrat Party didn't have moments of racial sanity. Democrat President Harry Truman did officially desegregate the military, but he was making official what General Eisenhower had started during WWII.
It's also true that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act under Democrat President Lyndon Johnson, but the bill never would have made it into law without the overwhelming support of Republicans. Only 6 Republicans voted against the bill, but 21 Democrats did (including Albert Gore Sr.). One of these 21 was Robert Byrd—a former “Keagle” in the Klan and a long-serving Senator—who filibustered the bill for 54 days, and as late as March, 2001, used the N-word publicly as a sitting U.S. Senator.
How did the Republicans begin the twentieth century? By founding Black colleges and universities throughout the South (Morehouse, Spelman, Fisk, Sam Houston, Howard, etc.), despite often brutal efforts by Democrats to stop them (see hiphoprepublicans.com). White and Black Republicans also founded the NAACP in 1908. Later, it was Republican President Dwight Eisen-hower who signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act that not only further protected the right of Blacks to vote but established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and formed the foundation of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
Eisenhower's Department of Justice argued successfully for school desegregation before the Supreme Court while the Democrat Party supported school segregation (“separate but equal”). The 1956 platform of the Republican Party endorsed the “Brown” decision, but the platform of the Democrat Party did not. Not blowing smoke, Eisenhower had the moral courage to send troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to enforce the Court's desegre-gation decision.
Behind the scenes, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen from Illinois performed yeoman service for the cause of Black civil rights by making sure Congressional Repub-licans remained true to their historic mission by voting for civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1965. Dirksen also wrote both the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in housing.
Democrats assert that the racist southern members of their party all jumped to the Republican Party in the 1960s. Why they would is not explained. In fact, the prevailing sentiment of these Dixiecrats was that it was better to vote for a “yellow dog” than for a Republican. Some of these Dixiecrats had long illustrious political careers as Democrats (e.g., Robert Byrd).
What about glower-puss Repub-lican Richard Nixon? Well, Tricky Dick managed to accommodate southern sensibilities rhetorically while delivering desegregation substantively. To overcome 15 years of foot-dragging on school desegrega-tion, Nixon formed a cabinet committee that negotiated within months the successful desegregation of local school systems in the South within a couple of years. He also laid the basis for affirmative action by imposing race-preference guidelines on government contractors. He also pioneered minority set-asides in federal procurement and contracting to boost Black ownership of businesses, trying to undo some of the damage done by Woodrow Wilson. The long-term merit of these programs aside, they continued the civil rights program of the party of Lincoln.
So, what happened in the twentieth century to explain how the party of Lincoln became stigmatized as racist, while the party with so many avowed racists did the stigmatizing?
It was the Fall of 1960, and Nixon (R) and Kennedy (D) were in a heated race for the presidency. In the South, Martin Luther King Jr. had just been arrested in Atlanta, Georgia. The situation was menacing. Democrat County officials allowed the Klan to march through the courthouse where King was being arraigned. Then King was sentenced to four months hard labor on a Georgia chain gang, a punishment tantamount to a death sentence. Alarm spread throughout the Black South and most of the country.
A staff member suggested to Kennedy that he call Coretta King as a courtesy. Kennedy replied, “What the hell. Why not?” The conversation lasted two minutes, with Kennedy saying, “If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.” That was it. But when news of the call leaked out (Kennedy was afraid of losing White voters) there was a sea-change in Black political allegiance. That telephone call flipped—and flipped off, as it were—racial history.
When King was released the next day, his father held a press conference. He announced that he was changing his vote from Nixon to Kennedy, and was going to put all the Black votes he controlled in his church into a suitcase and dump it in Kennedy's lap. Ralph Abernathy told Blacks to “take off your Nixon buttons.” And they did. In 1956, 60 percent of Blacks voted Republican. In 1960, 70 percent voted Democrat. Now 96 percent vote Democrat.
What does Kennedy's call have to do with the Republican Party being labeled racist?
Well, Democrats had to somehow secure the sudden and astonishing support of Blacks. What better way than by commandeering the term racist and slapping it on their political opponents? It was easy to do because the term can mean almost anything you want it to mean. For example, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a Democrat, readily suggests Republicans who oppose Obama are racist. This negative branding is not only “good” politics but serves deeper needs.
Use of the term miraculously nullifies the Democrat Party's hideous history. The term also allows the Party to shame its shamers by besmirching them with the same racial mud that once coated Democrats.
Commandeering the term racist also magically immunizes Democrats from the charge. Democrats are free to call Black Republicans anything they want with impunity (Oreos, Uncle Tom's, etc.).
More importantly, by exploiting the epithet, the Democrat Party is able to shield its secular quest for racial atonement. Let me explain.
In an effort to atone for its racist past, the Democrat Party champions all kinds of programs intended to help Blacks. It doesn't matter that many of these programs are redundant and pernicious in the long term. What does matter is that these programs serve to exculpate Democrats from the racial sins of the past. As Black scholar Shelby Steele sees it, the real purpose of “redemptive liberalism” is not actually to improve the lives of Blacks but to assuage White guilt.
To question, interfere with, or obstruct any of these programs, one might say, is tantamount to imped-ing a quest for racial salvation, and cannot be tolerated. When the statesman-like Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a scholar as well as politician—published a work in 1965 that correctly argued that federal welfare policies dear to Democrats were helping break-up Black families, he was roundly denounced as a bigot and racist, and he was a Democrat. By branding Republicans as racist, impugning their motives, and undermining their right to help organize a decent society, Democrats prevent cogent criticism of their “good works,” not all of which have turned out good—$7 trillion dollars, for example, having been poured into inner cities since the 1960s with little decline in poverty or demoral-ization, and an increase in depen-dency. It is not unfair therefore to assert that by delegitimizing the right of the Republican Party to honestly vet social policy and legislation, the Democrat Party (however good its intentions) has again wound up doing damage to Blacks.
Moreover, even if we should parse the political record right up to yesterday, we won't find any law, policy, or secret sin so egregious as to warrant the defamation of the Republican Party as “racist.” Quite the opposite. Since its creation, the GOP has struggled honorably to protect and extend civil rights and social well being, often against the rank hostility of Democrats.
Like it or not, the Republican Party has done nothing more than the Democrat Party to deserve the label "racist," and a good deal less.
Paul Trout is a retired professor of English at Montana State University, Bozeman. In 2011 he published Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination. He has written numerous articles on cultural, social, and educational issues. When not working on his second book, or watching vintage films, he's playing tennis, or looking for partners to play with, and writing articles like this one that makes such partners hard to find.
Gerard Alexander, The Party of Civil Rights, The Weekly Standard, Sept. 24, 2007.
Bruce Bartlett, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past.
Taylor Branch, How Kennedy Won the Black Vote, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 15, 1988.
Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction.
Why Martin Luther King was Republican, Human Events, Aug. 16, 2006.
Jeffrey Lord, The Party of Race, The American Spectator, April 2008.
Wayne Perryman, Whites, Blacks, and Racist Democrats.
Wayne Perryman, Unfounded Loyalty: An In-Depth Look into the Love Affair Between Blacks and Democrats.
Shelby Steele, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.