Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mr. Lincoln's Party

Dubya Augustus, the GOP and the NAACP

As part of his recent speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), President Bush remarked that he was sad his party has lost the support of African American voters. What he doesn't seem to have thought about is WHY it happened.

Nobody who ran into me would call me a "colored" man. I have a congenital melanin deficiency. I grew up in a small city way up north where there were literally no permanent residents within 100 miles who could be called "colored" or "black" or "Afro-American" or "Negro" or anything else along that line. I wasn't raised with any of the disadvantages American culture imposes upon people with dark skin.

My great-great-grandfather's family has been voting Republican ever since he came home to east Tennessee from the Civil War, with his discharge papers signed by Abraham Lincoln. (The Ku Klux Klan was constantly threatening to burn down his house for that. In those days, all the boys in the Klan were Democrats.)

For 70 years after the Civil War, if an African American managed to vote at all, they generally voted Republican for more or less the same reasons as my great-great-grandfather.

That began to change with the New Deal. President Roosevelt showed no great courage when it came to civil rights. The army remained segregated all the way through World War II. He wouldn't take a chance on supporting anti-lynching legislation. But, like a majority of "white" citizens, only more so, African Americans were hungy, unemployed and homeless, and the New Deal looked better than anything the Republican Party was offering.

Since rolling back the New Deal as far as possible was the dream of all those who gathered around Ronald Reagan, and later around George W. Bush, none of this offers great hope for bringing African American voters back to the GOP.

But there is more. Until at least 1960, a substantial minority of African Americans still voted for Republicans.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, originally planned to vote in 1960 for Richard M. Nixon. He said as much to anyone who valued his opinion or sought his advice, which was quite a lot of people. All that changed when his son, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was locked up in a jail in Georgia. John F. Kennedy made a phone call to the King family, Richard M. Nixon did not.

That was a calculated decision by both campaigns. Kennedy, like Nixon, was closeted with his advisors, assessing how many votes to we gain if I do this, how many votes do we lose? Kennedy decided it was a better deal to call. Nixon did not. King, Sr. came out for Kennedy.

Kennedy was s-s-s-l-l-l-l-o-o-o-o-o-wwwwwww when it came to civil rights. He hobbled along behind the direct nonviolent action in the streets. He was less decisive than Eisenhower, who sent federal troops to Little Rock once it became clear that the city and state were defying the Supreme Court of the United States. (Let's keep this in perspective: Eisenhower personally expressed shock that "white" college students should have to sit in the same classroom with "colored" students, without at least a barrier of chicken wire between them. But he would not let the authority of the federal government be challenged).

Kennedy did eventually propose major civil rights laws. After he was assassinated, these laws were passed by congress. They were not the product of a Democratic majority outvoting a Republican majority. The strongest opposition came from a powerful minority of Democrats. A good deal of support came from Republicans. Without those Republican votes, the civil rights laws would not have passed. But here is where the Republican Party forfeited the allegiance of its remaining African American voters.

Republican strategists, Nixon foremost among them, saw a chance to grab the Democrats who opposed the civil rights laws. They didn't feel at home in the Democratic Party any more. They were welcomed into the Republican Party. It worked very well for the GOP. They got lots of votes. The Democratic "Solid South" became the Republican South. Southern veterans of the Union army, Republican voters all, like my great-great-grandfather, turned over in their graves. It would have been enough to make a union veteran vote for Democrats.

George W. Bush regrets that his party has lost the support of African American voters. As in many other things, George doesn't seem to have a clue why or how it happened. Perhaps he needs a history lesson. He won't get that from the entourage who invented him as a political candidate.