It’s the latest in political jujitsu — Republicans accusing Democrats of prejudice. Hillary Clinton charged with anti-Semitism . Republicans aggressively slamming Vice President Al Gore for his shameless pandering to race-baiting Rev. Al Sharpton, himself no stranger to anti-Semitic friends and quips.
And Wednesday, Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, not only making a case for the GOP, but also reminding the civil rights group that the Democrats were the ones in charge during all those tough years.
News coverage focused on “how ‘unusual’ it was for Republicans to address the NAACP,” Nicholson said. “Actually, I think it’s the Democrats — not Republicans — who should be reluctant to come before this, the nation’s leading organization for the advancement of civil rights.
“After all,” the RNC chairman went on, “it was Democrats, not Republicans, who for 40 years controlled both houses of Congress, and the city councils and school boards in most of America’s largest cities for at least that long.
“Two generations ago, it was Democrats like Lester Maddox and George Wallace” — governors of Georgia and Alabama — “who blocked the schoolhouse doors, saying ‘Black students can’t get in,’” Nicholson said.
Nicholson then argued that education was the “new civil right,” heralding Bush on the subject of school vouchers and quality education. Attempting to tie the segregationists of the past to the Democratic Party of the present, Nicholson said that “today, nearly 50 years later, it’s still Democrats standing in the schoolhouse doors. Only this time, they’re saying ‘Black students can’t get out’ — can’t get out of public schools that are failing them … are unsafe … where learning isn’t taking place.”
This broadside stands as just the latest in a GOP strategy of invoking Democrats like Maddox — and Republicans like Rockefeller. These history lessons may remind the public of the GOP’s forgotten legacy of tolerance, but they also strike a contrast with the party’s less impressive recent history.
On a July 10 episode of CNN’s “Crossfire,” Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the only black Republican of all 535 members of the House and Senate, had the unique distinction of defending Bush’s tacit support of the Confederate flag’s flying over the South Carolina state capitol. Watts defended Bush by reminding host Bill Press of who was governor of South Carolina in 1962, when the flag was first raised.
“It was a Democratic governor by the name of Ernest Hollings” — now a Democratic senator — “that raised the Confederate flag,” Watts said. “I cry for consistency. If you mention George Bush, you surely have to mention Ernest Hollings … We wouldn’t even be talking about this issue if Ernest Hollings wouldn’t have raised the Confederate flag to start with.”
When Press mentioned Bush’s now infamous Feb. 2 appearance at Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was banned, Watts replied, “you’ve had Republicans and Democrats both that have spoken at Bob Jones, and again, it only becomes an issue if a Republican speaks at Bob Jones.”
Cherylyn Harley, deputy press secretary of the RNC and an African-American, says that these points are “important.” Harley — who penned Nicholson’s NAACP speech — says she’s eager to “remind people of their history. The Republican Party was founded on the issue of equal opportunity, specifically the issue of slavery and the need to eradicate it from American life.”
Sure, but that was almost 150 years ago. That Republicans still trot out Abraham Lincoln as their standard-bearer on racial issues is embarrassing; when Bush invoked the 138-year-old Homestead Act in his NAACP speech last week, it was an easy target.
Harley, however, is quick to point out that it was a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sent the National Guard to Little Rock in 1957 to ensure the peaceful, landmark integration of Central High School.
And there’s more. Historian Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center and professor of history at the University of New Orleans, also points out that it was white Democratic Southerners who were responsible for implementing Jim Crow laws. However, Brinkley notes, Eisenhower appointed the liberal Republican judges in the South who implemented Brown vs. Board of Education — the Supreme Court decision that ended the notion of “separate but equal” and outlawed Jim Crow.
Brinkley, author of a new biography of Rosa Parks, points in particular to Ike judicial appointee Frank Johnson, an Alabama Republican, and hero of New York Times editorial page editor Howell Raines, as well as the subject of a biography written by Bobby Kennedy Jr. Johnson’s role supporting Brown and his later desegregation rulings earned him the title “the most hated man in Alabama” by the Ku Klux Klan.
This was the Republican Party of the 1950s. Eisenhower got 60 percent of the black vote in the election of 1956. And it was a Republican senator, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who broke the longest filibuster in the U.S. Senate “conducted by the Democrats over the 1957 Civil Rights Act,” Harley goes on.
Harley argues that it didn’t end there. “It was Republicans who voted overwhelmingly for the Civil Rights Act of 1964″ as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, she says. “That kind of thing is easily researchable.”
She’s right: According to Congressional Quarterly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the House 290-130, and Republican support for the bill was much stronger than Democratic: 61 percent (152-96) of the Democrats supported the legislation while 80 percent (138-34) of the Republicans backed it. These numbers were similar in the Senate — 69 percent of Democrats (46-21), backed the bill along with 82 percent of Republicans (27-6).
Gore’s father, Sen. Al Gore Sr., D-Tenn., was one of the 21 Democrats who voted against it. So was Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., himself a former member of the Ku Klux Klan — as former RNC Chair Haley Barbour was quick to mention, two times, Thursday on “Crossfire.”
It was pretty much the same for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the House, 82 percent of the Republicans backed the bill; in the Senate, 94 percent of the Republicans backed it. Gore Sr. voted for the bill this time, but 17 other Southern Democrats voted against it — including Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, a mentor to President Bill Clinton.
Further, Harley goes on, “it was [President Richard] Nixon who created the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, believe it or not.”
But in their efforts to paint the GOP as warm and inclusive, these GOP amateur historians’ memories can also seem a tad shaky. While accurately heralding Dirksen’s actions to end the 1957 filibuster, for instance, Harley neglects to mention that the South Carolina senator conducting the filibuster was Strom Thurmond — who within seven years would find a new home on the Republican side of the aisle.
There may be a lot the Democratic Party should be embarrassed about, especially in the 1950s and ’60s. There is quite a bit more for Republicans to be ashamed of, however, especially in the 1980s and ’90s.
“They’re picking their decades,” says Brinkley. Since Eisenhower, he says, the parties have transformed.
Take Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who was a student at Ole Miss when black student James Meredith was trying to integrate the school, and campaigned against Meredith being allowed to attend the school. “That’s the Republican Party of the South today,” Brinkley says.
Watts was on target, for instance, when he slammed Democrats for failing to mention that it was one of their own, Hollings, who was instrumental in beginning South Carolina’s Confederate flag mess. The Democratic Party is just as wimpy when one of its own flashes a glimmer of a sheet; there was little outrage on the Democratic side when Hollings called Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, “the senator from B’nai B’rith,” or when he called blacks “darkies” or Latinos “wetbacks,” or when he joked that African heads of state were cannibals.
But Watts was completely off the mark when, during that same July 10 “Crossfire,” he said. “Bush, I think, since has said that he should have taken a stronger stand. I think the Confederate flag should have come down.” Bush has said no such thing, though his primary opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has.
Contacted in Warrenton, Va., the last black Republican senator, Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, expressed interest in news of Nicholson’s speech. He cited a speech he delivered to the National Council of Black Republicans on Feb. 16 and suggested that Nicholson had taken some of his admonitions to heart.
In that speech, Brooke noted that the black Republicans’ loyalty “is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that … you have been far too often outright embarrassed by the policies, strategies and public pronouncements of some of our high-ranking Republican leaders and Republican officeholders.”
For black and Hispanic voters, Brooke said, “Republican conservatism has come to mean opposition to civil rights … to urban Americans, opposition to new programs and the dismantling of existing programs which have and would improve the quality of their lives.”
So what happened to change things so drastically? The Republicans who supported the civil rights measures, according to Brinkley, were Rockefeller Republicans, and on their way out. The civil rights leadership of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had them supplanting Lincoln in the hearts of black voters. These were the men chasing Thurmond into the embrace of the GOP.
“I think I just lost the South,” Johnson is said to have stated after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. True enough, the election of 1968 had white Southerners embracing Nixon and Wallace, with black Southerners running toward Hubert Humphrey, who delivered a fiery oration in support of civil rights at the Democratic National Convention in 1948.
The black vote was still up for grabs in 1976, though. According to Brinkley, Jimmy Carter’s official biographer, Martin Luther King Jr.’s father, Martin Luther “Daddy” King Sr., was planning on voting for Gerald Ford since the beloved Nelson Rockefeller was to be his vice president; Carter had run for governor at the time, in 1970, as a “redneck conservative,” welcoming the support of segregationists and praising Maddox as “the essence of the Democratic Party.”
But then Ford dropped Rockefeller for Bob Dole, and King and civil rights leader Andy Young endorsed Carter. In 1980, Carter, a Southerner, lost the white South to Ronald Reagan, whose “Southern strategy” included, as Brinkley puts it, “using the politics of race to smash the New Deal coalition” Franklin Roosevelt had put together. “And it worked.”
Invoking images of “welfare queens,” Reagan alienated many black voters, as did George Bush Sr. in 1988 with the infamous Willie Horton ad. Harley argues that “the whole Willie Horton thing is something that Al Gore came up with.” But when it’s pointed out that Gore — who first mentioned Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ ill-conceived prison furlough program during the Democratic primaries of 1988 — didn’t use an image of Horton, or mention the fact that he’s black, Harley says, “you’re getting into semantics now. Al Gore brought that up and you know that, whether he used a photo or not.”
There were other doozies that most black voters will have a difficult time forgetting, such as how it was leaders of the Republican Party who led the charge to dismantle affirmative action. By last November, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 65 percent of blacks consider themselves Democrats, 24 percent are independents and 5 percent are Republicans. Even J.C. Watts Sr. — the father of the congressman — is oft-quoted as saying that a black man voting for a Republican “is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.” Or, as Gen. Colin Powell more gently put it on Fox News last month, the GOP is “certainly not seen as the black guy’s party.”
Now that white America is also capable of being offended by what Brooke referred to in February as “mean-spirited, inflammatory language, which hurts and embarrasses large segments of our population,” Bush and Nicholson might be smart to heed Brooke’s advice. And they seem to be doing just that.
“To win elections,” Brooke said, “to win the presidency, to be the majority in the Congress, the state houses and the city and town halls, we must reject negativism.”
“Will it translate into votes in November?” Harley asks. “I don’t know. But at least you have the Republican Party reaching out, and as far as I’m concerned that’s progress.”
Reminding voters that there have been plenty of friendly Republicans since Lincoln, as well as Democrats like Hollings and Byrd with checkered pasts, might even be a smart facet of this pitch. But as Brinkley notes, “It’s absurd for a Republican to claim that the modern Republican Party of the year 2000 has done more for blacks than Democrats. That’s outrageous. That’s playing historical games.”