Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How Did African Americans Become Democrats and How Did Republicans Become the Party of White Supremacy?, Part I

This is the first of a three-part series on the origins of GOP racism.

This site is devoted to one thesis: that in the age of Obama, the Republican Party has abandoned any attempt at subtlety and has openly embraced racism as an electoral tactic.  From the local to the state to the national level GOP supporters, activists and elected officials have come out of their closets and into their sheets.

After three introductory essays explaining the history of the relationship of blacks, Latinos and other marginalized groups to the Democratic and Republican parties, this blog will provide examples of the racism of prominent Republicans until Election Day 2012.

Southern racists began migrating to the Republican Party in the 1940s when the national Democratic Party recognized the changing demographics of Northern voters and started supporting, however tepidly, African American civil rights.  A Democratic Party that had been devoted to slavery, segregation, and the defense of lynching, dramatically changed under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.  

New Deal programs began to benefit African Americans. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, openly sympathized with the black freedom cause.  FDR, reluctant to offend the segregationist Democrats he relied on for passage of his New Deal program, nevertheless regularly met with representatives of the black community who came to be dubbed "The Black Cabinet."  When the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow the African American contralto Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall, Ms. Roosevelt publicly resigned her DAR membership and persuaded the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to arrange for Ms. Anderson to perform an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.  

Marian Anderson shakes hands with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes before her landmark concert at the Lincoln Memorial.  The even marked a turning point in the relationship between the national Democratic Party and African Americans.  (Photo from the Modern American Poetry website at

Even as FDR, a New York patrician, continued to consider himself an "honorary Southerner" and made regular trips to Warm Springs, Georgia to relieve symptoms of his polio, he received increasing pressure from the black Civil Rights Movement.  As the United States geared up its weapons production in anticipation of American involvement in World War II, A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened to hold a massive "March on Washington" in 1941 to protest discriminatory hiring practices in the defense industry.  Not wanting a show of disunity in the face of a war with the Axis Powers, FDR signed Executive Order 8802 which prohibited racial discrimination in hiring by defense industries with federal contracts.  

This set a pattern for a new relationship between the two major parties and African Americans.  The Republican Party was founded in the 1850s on the premise of stopping the spread of slavery beyond where it already existed.  This opposition was based on the notion that unpaid slave labor represented unfair competition to paid white labor and that the association of blacks with certain jobs would compromise the dignity of those manual labor tasks -- and white workers would refuse to perform those duties.  

By the 1850s, some Republicans came to see slavery as evil, but they were not necessarily ever a majority. During Reconstruction, so-called Radical Republicans hoped to establish a competitive party in the Democratic-dominated South.  The Radicals pushed dramatic changes in the rules of America's racial politics during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era (1863-1877.) With the 13th Amendment, they abolished slavery.  With the 14th Amendment, they established citizenship for all naturalized U.S. residents and all those born in the United States (including African Americans.) With the 15th Amendment, the Radical Republicans prohibited states from barring residents from voting based on "race, color, and previous condition of servitude." America had, after the Civil War, entered what sociologist James Loewen describes as a brief period of racial idealism in which Northern whites, who generally voted Republican, could imagine a peaceful, multi-racial democracy.

Several factors undermined this racial idealism, including persistent Ku Klux Klan terrorism, continued poverty among Freedmen, a depression from 1873-1878, and the corruption of the Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877).  White Southern racism and resistance to reform seemed intractable and stretched the patience of even Republican voters.  There was wide support for GOP President Rutherford B. Hayes after the 1876 election when he withdrew Union troops from the South, thus abandoning blacks to the tender mercies of the white majority.   Faced with an onslaught of immigration from newcomers like Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Italians and others seen as "not white," Republican-supporting Northerners began to think they had their own racial problems and started to empathize with Southern whites. 

In addition, the history profession came to be dominated by Southern white men attending Columbia University in New York who were taught by the Confederate-sympathizing professor William Dunning. He believed that liberating black slaves had been a mistake forced on the country by "fanatical" Abolitionists, that African American freedmen were completely unqualified for citizenship, and that the experiments in racial equality during Reconstruction had been wrong-headed and ultimately destructive, ushering in a Southern era of unprecedented corruption and black criminality.  Free blacks, Dunning believed, were destroying the South with criminality and incompetence until the region was "saved" by the Ku Klux Klan, which ended the foolish experiment in black citizenship.

The Confederate-sympathizing historian William Dunning trained a generation of racist historians at Columbia University.  (Photo from the right-wing website at

The Dunning view of America’s troubled history of race relations became the accepted wisdom of the experts. Dunning students wrote the American history textbooks adopted across the country.  Klansmen suddenly emerged as heroes alongside the Minutemen of the Revolution, “Deprived by force of any legal means of defense against this iniquitous kind of government, the South resorted to intimidation and persecution of the negro,” one Dunning student, David Saville Muzzey, wrote in an American history text widely adopted by high schools in the early twentieth century .  “ . . . Inevitably there was violence done in this reign of terror inaugurated by the Ku-Klux.  Negroes were beaten and scalawags shot.  Of course these deeds of violence were greatly exaggerated by the carpetbag officials . . .”

D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent movie blockbuster, "The Birth Of A Nation," portrayed the terrorist the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes who rescued the South from political corruption and "Negro Rule" during Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s.  In the scene above, Walter Long (a white actor in black face) plays Gus ("a renegade negro") who serves in the Union Army and has attempted to rape a white woman.  Gus will soon be lynched.  The movie deeply shaped the public's understanding of American history and increased hostility to black voting rights.  This, in turn, moved the Republican Party towards a more racist stance regarding its African American supporters. (Photo from 

Another pair of Dunningite historians. James Truslow Adams and Charles Garrett Vannest, argued in another early 20th century high school text that violence can be justified if it preserves white power.  “It was natural that the Southern whites, to prevent their complete ruin, should wish to gain control of their own states,” they claim in The Record of America.  “The only way to combat congressional legislation was with violence when other methods failed.”

This understanding of history infected popular culture, North and South, and inspired the plot line of the first Hollywood movie epic, The Birth of a Nation,  made by Southern-born director D.W. Griffith in 1915.  Audiences lined up around the block all across the country to see Birth,  which depicted black soldiers in the Union Army as rapists; and abolitionists who favored black rights as insane.

With white racism so entrenched in American political culture, it’s no wonder that the Republican Party moved in a more racist direction than even Abraham Lincoln (who always believed that blacks were intellectually inferior) would have contemplated.  By the twentieth century, Republican leaders in Southern states like Texas sought to make their party “lilly white,” and President Herbert Hoover (who served from 1929-1933) implemented a Southern strategy in which he sought to distance the GOP from the Lincoln era and make the Republican Party competitive in Dixie by actively supporting segregation, the purging of black Republicans, and appealing directly to bigots in the old Confederacy.  It's no mystery that African Americans wondered what they had gained from unflagging support of “the party of Lincoln,”  after seven decades, when FDR became president.

When Roosevelt died in 1945, subsequent Democratic presidents built on the outreach to African Americans begun by Roosevelt. FDR’s vice president, Harry S Truman, rose to the White House April 12, 1945, when FDR died of a stroke.  Truman came from a regional border state (Missouri) and occasionally used anti-black slurs in private conversation.  Writing to his daughter, Margaret Truman, when he was a senator from Missouri, the future president once complained about black waiters at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, whom he described as “an army of coons” who thought they were “evidently the top of the black social set in Washington.”  Once in a 1939 letter to his wife, Bess, Truman derided an African American social occasion as “nigger picnic day.”   As president, however, Truman worried about the impact of racial injustice in the United States on the Cold War. 

 Pragmatic electoral concerns also shaped his newly found interest in civil rights.  From the 1920s through World War II, millions of African Americans had moved north of the Mason-Dixon line and into the West to escape the harassment of Southern whites and to find better-paying jobs.  Since Roosevelt’s second term, African American voters in the North and West largely supported Democrats, and in states like California and Michigan the black electorate could swing close elections.  Black resentment over the influence of Southern white segregationists on the Democratic Party, however, caused a drop-off in black support for the Democrats in the 1946 congressional races.  Truman wanted to win these voters back.

Post-war racial violence, however, also moved the president. Black activists told Truman of an incident in Monroe, Georgia, in which whites fatally shot two African American men. The wife of one of the victims recognized one of the white shooters, so the killers assassinated both of the victims' spouses, as well.  Violence against African American servicemen in particular shocked the president.  More than 1 million African Americans served in the military during World War II.  Black soldiers entering the war hoped to win what civil rights leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois called the “Double V” – victory against the Axis Powers and against racism at home. In the same way that many African American soldiers returning from World War I suffered persecution and lynching upon returning to the United States, several shocking attacks on black veterans made headlines across the nation just after World War II.  Black veterans would be outraged by the poor treatment they received upon their return to the United States, prompting many to become active in the Civil Rights Movement.

In one incident, the police chief in Aiken, S.C., severely beat Sgt. Issac Woodard, an African American, with a nightstick and gouged an eye out.  Woodard had received his separation papers from the United States Army a mere three hours earlier.  Hearing of this attack, Truman reportedly said, “My God. I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We’ve got to do something!”  Truman later said incidents such as the assault on Sgt. Woodard moved him to push for civil rights.  Pressed by Southern members of Congress to abandon this stand, Truman said, “My forebears were Confederates.… Every factor and influence in my background—and in my wife’s for that matter—would foster the personal belief that you are right.  But my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad.”

President Harry Truman: reluctant civil rights reformer.  (Photo from Wikipedia at

On December 5, 1946, Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, to which he predominantly appointed racial liberals.  The committee issued its report, “To Secure These Rights,” the following October.   According to the report, the contrast between the nation’s stated ideas of human equality and the widespread practice of racial discrimination served as “a kind of moral dry rot which eats away at the emotional and rational bases of democratic beliefs.”  With its eyes on America’s global competition with the Soviet Union, the report warned that “we cannot ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.”

The committee recommended a broad range of reforms including enacting a federal anti-lynching statute (designed to get around Southern courts which refused to prosecute violent crimes committed by whites against blacks); a ban on the poll tax (which reduced black voting); prohibiting by federal statute discrimination in private employment; establishing a permanent Commission on Civil Rights; increasing the size of the Justice Department’s civil rights division; and strictly enforcing voting rights laws.  The Commission also urged the Justice Department to file lawsuits against housing developments and neighborhood associations that used secret covenants to deny housing to racial and religious minorities; said that federal money should be denied to any public or private agency that practiced segregation; and called for the Congress to integrate all facilities in Washington, D.C., including the public school system.  President Truman embraced most of these recommendations in a civil rights message to Congress on February 2, 1948.

At the Democratic National Convention that summer, Southern delegates walked out when a far-reaching pro-Civil Rights plank was for the first time added to the Democratic Party platform.  Nevertheless, Truman issued two executive orders on July 26, 1948: one that would eventually desegregate the armed forces and another that prohibited discrimination in the federal civil service.  Truman first signed Executive Order 9981 ordering the desegregation of the Armed Forces on July 26, 1948, but by January 13, 1949, only one of the Marine Corps’ 8,200 officers was an African American.  Only five of the Navy’s 45,000 officers were black.  The Army, meanwhile, maintained a 10 percent recruiting quota for African Americans until the Korean War began in 1950.  High casualties among white units in the war hastened the integration of black troops. Not until 1953 could the Army announce that 95 percent of African American troops served in integrated units.

During the late 1940s, Truman also used his executive powers to empanel a Commission on Higher Education that recommended an end to religious and racial quotas used at universities to limit admission of Jews and blacks. After his presidency, Truman continued to use words like “nigger” in private conversation, dismissed Martin Luther King, Jr., as a “troublemaker” and considered the civil rights movement at least partly inspired by communism. But his presidency nevertheless committed the national Democratic Party to greater support for black voting rights and opposition to segregation.  For a long time, the Democratic Party suffered a split personality on civil rights, with the Northern wing  and the presidential nominees  generally supporting the black freedom  struggle, at least verbally.  Sen. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, the party's failed nominee for the White House in 1952 and 1956, supported black voting rights in the South. This, in turn, led to greater African American allegiance to the Democratic Party, until by the 1990s 90 percent of black voters routinely supported Democratic candidates for president.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

1 comment:

  1. it sad to see the party of lincoln, turn against black americans. this is a lose , lose situation. the gop's will never ever again win a presidential election without the black vote. in order for the gop's to win black the black vote they must give blascks reparations, and nothing short of that.