“Dictator of the Lincoln belt”: Meet the black political operative who orchestrated one of the great upsets in presidential election history

Robert Church Jr. knew that delivering the black vote could tip the balance and win an election. Sound familiar?

By Preston Lauterbach

Published February 29, 2016 11:57PM (EST)

A line of people trying to register in a priority book to take a voter registration test in Selma, Alabama, Feb. 17, 1965.  (AP)
A line of people trying to register in a priority book to take a voter registration test in Selma, Alabama, Feb. 17, 1965. (AP)

This week, as the Democratic candidates approach Super Tuesday, African-American voters in the South and Midwest are seen as the difference between victory and defeat.

Today, the pursuit of black voters entails symbolic gestures — grip and grin with Al Sharpton, breakfast at Sylvia’s — that may resonate with voters without tangibly representing votes. Current headlines echo a forgotten history of African-American election power and the genius of a black political operative. It’s a history that brings up crucial questions for the days ahead.

Son and namesake of the “South’s first black millionaire,” Robert Church Jr. was a 6-foot-tall, 200-pounder, with patrician features but a tough-set jaw. He dressed like a star of Hollywood’s golden age, and smoked constantly. In 1920, he orchestrated a great upset in presidential election history.

Time dubbed him “dictator of the Lincoln belt,” a six-state area of the upper South and Midwest. He was a self-funded Republican operative at a time when black voters still revered the GOP as the party of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. Really, he functioned more like a congressman from the state of blackness.

But as dawn broke over Chicago, June 10, 1920, Bob Church found himself in trouble. At age 34, Church was a two-campaign veteran of presidential politics, leading his delegates at the 1912 and 1916 Republican conventions. Now, they were kicked out of their seats at the Republican National Convention. They faced a foe within the party—an all-white faction that believed in the racial purification of the Republicans.

He could have easily left the party that jilted him. Instead, his greatest triumph launched from his lowest moment. He went to work.

In Church’s time, black vote winning was a grass-roots grind. Church never held public office. His power and prestige grew from the Lincoln League, founded 100 years ago this month to educate and register African-American voters. He had started off locally, with headquarters on Memphis' legendary Beale Street. During the same years that blues composer W.C. Handy led a black takeover of American popular music from Beale, Church plotted a similar revolution in politics. In Memphis elections, Church developed a tiebreaker strategy. His coalition lacked the numbers to win an office outright, but city mayoral races typically came down to the open Democratic primary. In a toss-up between white Democrats, Church’s 10,000 black voters could tip the balance of power and decide an election. Look familiar?

In a smoky room, Church dealt his support in exchange for black community upgrades. A compromise, but in Southern-style realpolitik, a preferable alternative to African-Americans' having no influence at all. Church would leverage a black presence on the police force, improved parks, playgrounds and streets in black neighborhoods, and newly built schools and healthcare facilities for African-American citizens of Memphis.

The Lincoln League enlisted women to teach voting classes in every black church or fellowship hall in every black neighborhood in Memphis. Voting school instructors made weekly reports to headquarters, specifying the number of new voters trained. Weekly rallies attracted thousands. The League grew statewide and expanded into New Orleans and Chicago branches, site of the League’s 1920 national convention, when Church invited white GOP figures to attend and witness the power.

As of that year’s election, no former Confederate state had gone for the party of Lincoln since 1876 — 11 states, 10 elections. Church’s home state of Tennessee had gone conservative in every election since 1868.

Church sent campaigners door-to-door like salesmen to register African-American voters and get them to the polls. A League speakers’ bureau dispersed loquacious volunteers at the neighborhood level to invigorate voters. “Now there were some groups that if you sent a man there with too much polish he couldn’t get away with it,” recalled Lincoln Leaguer Herbert Brewster. “They wanted you to come down to earth and talk street talk.”

They adapted, and made sure to send out the right orator to suit the climate. Lincoln League electioneers went out in loudspeaker-equipped automobiles to set up outside factories at lunch hour. 

As Republican nominee Warren Harding battled Democrat James Cox, it became clear that the GOP effort needed black support, despite rough treatment at the convention. On Sept. 22, 1920, a cryptic telegram arrived in Church’s office from Republican National Committee chairman Will Hays. Hays had attended the League’s national meeting in Chicago and come away impressed. 

“I wish you would go down to Maryland right away for me,” the note read. “See what the situation is in a particular matter which Senator Weller will mention to you and I wish you would go into this very thoroughly.”

Church went to Maryland and helped get out the black vote there. He also organized black voter campaigns in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. He ventured wherever else the party needed him, energizing black constituencies without asking for a penny from party headquarters.

Harding won the presidency on Nov. 2, 1920, and the election results showed a stunning breakthrough: After five decades as a Democratic stronghold, Tennessee’s electoral votes swung into the Republican column, with an estimated 170,000 black Republican votes statewide. That result was as unimaginable in November 1920 as Alabama going Democrat in November 2016. Of the states Church organized in, Kentucky was the only loss.

RNC chairman Hays wrote to President Harding to laud Church: “He is in a class by himself … as to matters political ... He goes about largely at his own expense on political errands, never taking a salary, and he is a very exceptional individual.” Hays informed Harding that Church would henceforth handle all federal appointments in Tennessee and among African-Americans nationwide, covering jobs from federal judges and district attorneys to postmasters and postal delivery workers. Patronage would make up a major part of Church’s political life, as he reinforced the Memphis black middle class with stable letter-carrier jobs and public school teaching positions.

Wary of any hint of compromised or corrupted character around him, Church steadfastly refused sweetheart spoils appointments for himself, like a federally funded vacation to the Virgin Islands, ostensibly to research economic conditions there, and as Hays noted, Church declined reimbursement for his party activities.

Church remained in Washington through spring 1921, establishing a relationship with the White House later described in the press as “a hotline running from Beale Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.” Meanwhile, an adviser in Memphis opened a package addressed to Church. It contained a length of rope fashioned into a noose. After learning of this, Church assured his advisers that the rope bothered him not at all, he had never backed down and never would.

He followed through. He battled the GOP mercilessly as it turned from longtime African-American supporters in the ’20s, most decisively in Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign. Church issued a scathing endorsement in the Chicago Defender, concluding he could only support Hoover by default: “The Republican Party offers us little. THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFERS US NOTHING.” When Hoover’s lily-white Southern campaign manager announced his will to take over federal job appointments, Church went straight to the White House and threatened to fight this move to his death.

Church fought until his opponents destroyed his fortune and his political organization. He kept fighting from exile until he died in 1952.

Today, as white candidates scramble for black voters, some might wonder: Is your vote better off now in this Black History Month, 2016, than it was 96 years ago? Harding didn’t exactly connect with black voters, but he empowered a black man to serve the constituency.

What does the symbolism — Sharpton, Sylvia’s, a Charleston shooting survivor’s endorsement, whether you’re part of “the black vote,” or you’re a black voter, whether you connect or don’t with Clinton or Sanders — really mean?

Another election is about to be decided by African-American voters; will the payback be as meaty without a congressman of black America like Bob Church to hold Washington accountable?

Preston Lauterbach is author of "Beale Street Dynasty" (W.W. Norton, 2015), a story of sex, song and the struggle for the soul of Memphis, and "The Chitlin Circuit" (W.W. Norton, 2011), a Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and NPR book of the year.

Preston Lauterbach

Preston Lauterbach is author of "Beale Street Dynasty," published March 30 by W.W. Norton & Co.

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American History Black History Month Black Vote Elections Robert Church Jr. Super Tuesday Voting