The Republican racist myth
The unsinkable Charles B. Rangel appeared on C-SPAN over the weekend. Why unsinkable? Well, the House of Representatives censured the New York Democrat in 2010 by a vote of 333 to 79 (when the body was still majority Democrat) for violating 11 ethics rules and “bringing discredit to the House.” The New York Times called it a “staggering fall” for the senior Democrat. But fall-schmall, he’s since been reelected and will retire at his leisure.
While chatting with Brian Lamb, Rangel dropped a few falsehoods as casually as cigar ash. This isn’t to pick on Rangel. He’s just illustrative. His assertion – that the Republican and Democratic Parties “changed sides” in the 1960s on civil rights, with white racists leaving the Democratic Party to join the Republicans – has become conventional wisdom. It’s utterly false and should be rebutted at every opportunity.
It’s true that a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act to passage. But who voted for it? Eighty percent of Republicans in the House voted aye as against 61 percent of Democrats. In the Senate, 82 percent of Republicans favored the law, but only 69 percent of Democrats. Among the Democrats voting nay were Albert Gore Sr., Robert Byrd and J. William Fulbright.
The Republican presidential candidate in 1964 also opposed the Civil Rights Act. Barry Goldwater had been an enthusiastic backer of the 1957 and 1960 civil rights acts (both overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats). He was a founding member of the Arizona chapter of the NAACP. He hired many blacks in his family business and pushed to desegregate the Arizona National Guard. He had a good-faith objection to some features of the 1964 act, which he regarded as unconstitutional.
Goldwater was no racist. The same cannot be said of Fulbright, on whom Bill Clinton bestowed the Medal of Freedom. Fulbright was one of the 19 senators who signed the “Southern Manifesto” defending segregation.
OK, but didn’t all the old segregationist senators leave the Democratic Party and become Republicans after 1964? No, just one did: Strom Thurmond. The rest remained in the Democratic Party – including former Klansman Robert Byrd, who became president pro tempore of the Senate.
Former racists of both parties renounced their old views (as Kevin Williamson points out, Johnson himself voted against anti-lynching laws and poll-tax repeals), and neither party has a perfect record on racial matters by any stretch. But it is a libel to suggest that the Republican Party, the anti-slavery party, the party of Lincoln, and the party that traditionally supported civil rights, anti-lynching laws and integration, became the racist party after 1964.
The “solid south” Democratic voting pattern began to break down not in the 1960s in response to civil rights, but in the 1950s in response to economic development and the Cold War. (Black voters in the north, who had been reliable Republicans, began to abandon the GOP in response to the New Deal, encouraged by activists like Robert Vann to “turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall. That debt has been paid in full.”) In the 1940s, the GOP garnered only about 25 percent of southern votes.
The big break came with Dwight Eisenhower’s victories. Significant percentages of white southerners voted for Ike, though the Democratic Party remained firmly segregationist and though Eisenhower backed two civil rights bills and enforced the Brown decision by federalizing the National Guard. They also began to send GOP representatives to the House.
These Republican gains came not from the most rural and “Deep South” regions, but rather from the newer cities and suburbs. If the new southern Republican voters were white racists, one would have expected that Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia would have been the first to turn. Instead, as Gerard Alexander notes in “The Myth of the Racist Republicans,” the turn toward the GOP began in Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and Florida. Eisenhower did best in the peripheral states. Alexander concludes: “(T)he GOP’s southern electorate was not rural, nativist, less educated, afraid of change, or concentrated in the … Deep South. It was disproportionately suburban, middle-class, educated, young, non-native southern, and concentrated in the growth points that were the least ‘Southern’ parts of the south.”
Rangel is peddling a libel, and Republicans should say so, loudly and often.