By Robert Parry
It’s kind of a waste of time but perhaps we must address a recurring rejoinder from some of the Republican Right’s benighted adherents who make a big deal about the fact that the Republican Party pioneered many important civil rights laws in the century following the Civil War.
This argument is tossed out whenever I or anyone else notes the obvious reality that today’s Republican Party and its allied Tea Party have become the chief bastions of white supremacy and racism in America. The historical rejoinder is meant somehow to obscure this modern reality.
The history is (or should be) well known. But in brief, here it is:
The Democratic Party, its forerunner founded in the early 1800s by Thomas Jefferson and other Southern plantation owners, was the party of slavery, espousing an intense distrust of a strong federal government as a threat to the South’s massive investment in human bondage. More or less, this remained the party’s position leading up to the Civil War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rethinking Thomas Jefferson.”]
Though the rival Federalists counted among themselves Virginians George Washington (and initially at least James Madison), their strength came from the North and thus they were less tied to slave interests.
With Jefferson’s remarkable success in building his more agrarian (Southern-based) party, the Federalists gradually disappeared, but some of the same Northern interests remerged with the Whigs and later the Republicans.
Thus, after Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 – and the secession of 11 Southern states – the Democrats lost much of their political clout inside the Union, opening the way for Lincoln to end slavery in 1865. After the South’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, the Radical Republicans enacted civil rights laws that were imposed on the defeated South during a period of military occupation known as Reconstruction.
As the Southern states reentered the Union, the Democrats were at the forefront of resistance to Reconstruction and – after it formally ended in 1877 – the Democratic Party became the party of Jim Crow and segregation.
Over the ensuing decades, the white-dominated South remained solidly Democratic, even as some northern Democrats began to repudiate this shameful legacy. Still, the Republicans remained largely the party of the North and the Democrats dominated the South.
Well into the Twentieth Century, the Republicans were the political leaders most open to black civil rights, although they were gradually joined by more enlightened Democrats from the North especially during the progressive administration of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, a New Yorker.
This collaboration between socially progressive Democrats and Republicans continued during the post-World War II years, under Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Thus, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it was Earl Warren, an Eisenhower appointee as Supreme Court chief justice who would shepherd some of the most important civil rights rulings of that era.
The Court’s rulings in favor of integration riled up racist Southern whites who denounced Warren and the “liberal” press for sticking up for “the coloreds.” However, when Democratic Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson picked up the torch of civil rights in the 1960s, the political world was turned upside down – as Johnson, a Texan, predicted it would be.
As the national Democratic Party stepped forward on behalf of blacks and other minorities, opportunistic Republicans, like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, saw an opportunity to poach the Southern states from the Democratic column. As the Democrats went from being the slavery/segregation party to the party of civil rights, the Republicans stopped being the party of civil rights and became the party of racial code words and hostility toward minorities.
In big ways and small, Nixon, Reagan and other Republicans appealed to white bigotry – often wrapping it in the same “small-government” message that Jefferson and his fellow slaveholders had used. This time, the point was that the federal government had to stop taking tax money from hardworking whites and giving it to undeserving blacks and other minorities.
So, over the ensuing few decades, Southern whites switched their party allegiance from Democratic to Republican, with Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices now rolling back key civil rights laws like the Voting Rights Act and GOP legislatures enacting laws to suppress minority voting.
None of this, of course, is news. It is well-known history, or should be. The obvious point is that just because Republicans were the party of civil rights for a century, roughly from the Civil War to the 1960s, doesn’t mean anything today. It is just a rhetorical trick used by today’s Republicans to conceal the fact that their party has repudiated its honorable history.
To harken back to the GOP’s noble heritage on race becomes just another excuse for its ignoble race hostility of today.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.
(Originally posted at Consortium News)