by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Well, it’s happened again. I’ve been confronted by another person claiming that the party of racial equality is the Republican Party, and the party of racial intolerance is the Democratic Party. As usual, the perpetrator of this edition of that old canard points out that most of those who opposed slavery in the mid-1800s were Republicans, while most of those who opposed emancipation and enacted Jim Crow laws in the South after the Civil War were Democrats.

The short response is, “That was then; this is now.”

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The Republican Party of today is not the party that freed the slaves. That party – which, by the way, may have been anti-slavery but was by no means unanimously in favor of racial equality – disappeared after Reconstruction. Although the Republicans were able to garner more than negligible support from African-Americans until the 1960s, that decade marked a significant shift in the party’s official stance on racial issues. Even though potential candidates for president such as Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson have made a mark on the national scene, they have done so by proclaiming that racism is a thing of the past.

Likewise, the Democratic Party is no longer the party of the “Solid South” that could be counted on for Democratic votes and Congressional seats for nearly a century. After the Civil War, it was almost unheard of for a white person in the South to be a Republican until the last third of the Twentieth Century. The hangover from the Radical Republicans’ domination of domestic Southern politics – lasting from the end of the Civil War until the end of Reconstruction – was too deep a wound to allow any segregationist to take on the name of the party that won The War. The Southern Democrats made a corrupt bargain with the Northern Democrats to maintain control of Congress and have a strong national voting coalition. The deal went like this: “We’ll vote for all your social programs if you don’t say or do anything about segregation.”  It is truthful to say that nearly all openly segregationist politicians were Democrats, but it is untrue to say that all Democrats were segregationists.

Although the Democrats of the 1920s and beyond became increasingly less racist on a national level, the deal stayed in place for two more decades. It frayed a bit during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and became scarcely sustainable in Harry Truman’s presidency – especially when Truman desegregated the USA’s military forces by executive order in 1948. Just two weeks earlier, the coalition had fallen apart at the Democratic National Convention when the party installed a Civil Rights plank in its platform. The leader of the Southern Democrats, Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, led the South out over that issue and ran for president on the States’ Rights Party ticket, winning four Deep-South States. Thurmond made it clear that he would not support the Democrats’ “anti-segregation, anti-lynching” stance. You can listen to what he then said here.

The recording is not clear on one word, but it is usually transcribed thus: “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” (Since the Old South pronunciation of the then-acceptable word Negro was “Nigra,” it is uncertain whether he used that word or “n****r,” but he is generally given the benefit of the doubt.)

Thurmond became an Independent in 1954, after the South Carolina Democratic Party refused to endorse his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. During both presidential elections in the 1950s, Republican Dwight Eisenhower could pursue and compete for the votes of African-Americans. At that time, most Southern blacks were denied the opportunity to vote, and Northern blacks recognized that those running things in the South were Democrats, justifying votes for Eisenhower and other Republicans. In 1956, for example, Eisenhower garnered 39 percent of the African-American vote. Four years later, Richard Nixon took 32 percent running against John Kennedy.

However, 1964 was a different story. That year the Republican Party abandoned any pretense of favoring Civil Rights when a large segment of the party opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the impending Voting Rights Act of 1965. The nomination that year of Barry Goldwater (who had also opposed the desegregation ordered by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954) for president on a platform of “States’ Rights” (just as in 1948, code for “segregation”) was evidence that the Republicans had become the anti-equality party.

The same year, Senator Thurmond officially became a Republican, which started the exodus of the segregationists and race-baiters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.  Also that year, the Republican Party of Mississippi included in its platform the statement, “segregation of the races is essential,” a sure welcoming sign to those who would leave the Democratic Party as it brought African-Americans into its fold.  More white Southerners joined the Republicans than there were black Southerners to join the Democrats.  Today, there are few Southern Democrats in State and Federal offices.  The politics of the South have not changed much, but the old-line segregationists can now safely call themselves Republicans.

In that year’s election, Goldwater pulled in only six percent of the African-American vote, and his anti-Civil-Rights stance was verified when he won only the five Deep South States (along with his home State of Arizona). With black support for Republicans reaching levels so low they could safely be disregarded, Richard Nixon found a new plan for winning national office. In his 1968 run for president, Nixon realized that if he could combine the segregationists of the South with the traditional Republicans of the Midwest and West, it would be enough to control the government.

Thus Nixon created his “Southern Strategy,” making his own corrupt bargain with the Southern segregationists, again led by Thurmond. In exchange for the votes of the Thurmond-controlled South Carolina delegation at the Republican National Convention, (which got Nixon just enough votes to win the nomination), he gave Thurmond final approval of his vice-presidential nominee (Spiro Agnew) and the selection of his first two Supreme Court nominees (Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, both rejected by the Senate). In addition, he promised to end forced busing to integrate schools and to minimize the enforcement of civil rights laws.

After 1968, Republicans never again were serious contenders for African-American votes on a national level. The highest percentage of those votes achieved by a Republican candidate was 18 percent by George Bush the Elder in 1988. George Bush the Younger’s three percent in 2000 was more than the one percent for John McCain in 2008.

The Republicans began scarcely bothering to disguise their true colors.  It was no accident that in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s first public appearance in the general election campaign was at the county fair in notorious Neshoba County, Mississippi, where he made it a point to announce, “I believe in States’ Rights.”  Later, Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi embarrassed the party only a little when he said that the country would have been better off had Thurmond won the 1948 presidential election, and Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination were obliged to make a pilgrimage to speak at South Carolina’s Bob Jones University to verify their segregationist bona fides until that school finally ended its ban on interracial dating in 2000.

So let’s get the facts straight. Yes, the Radical Republicans of 1865 – 1877 enacted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and the Southern Democrats of that same period created the Jim Crow state. But in the “stolen” election of 1876, the Republicans took the White House in post-election dealings by which they promised to end Reconstruction and let the South run its own racial and political affairs in exchange for the Democrats’ approval of the Congressional vote that accepted the awarding of the presidency to Republican Rutherford Hayes by a special commission appointed after the disputed national vote.

That was the end of the racial legacy of the “party of Lincoln.” Over the next 80 years, the Republican Party moved further and further away from policies of racial equality. It became the anti-Civil-Rights party over 50 years ago and has remained that ever since. So let us put an end to that load of codswallop that says, “The Republican Party is the party of minority rights because Lincoln freed the slaves.”