February is Black History Month so I thought I’d start out the month with a (perhaps) thought-provoking article on something I’ve pondered for some time: when and why did African Americans, many former slaves or children of former slaves, stop supporting the party of Lincoln, a.k.a. The Republican Party? Historically, African Americans generally supported the Republican Party from the time of Lincoln until sometime in the 1930’s.
The Republican Party, also known as the Grand Old Party or GOP, was founded in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, which one would expect former slaves to align themselves with politically following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Republican support for abolishing slavery was met with great disdain by prominent Democrats – Stephen Douglas used the slur “Black Republican” repeatedly in his speeches during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858.
Today’s National Black Republican Association notes that Democrats formed the Confederacy and voted to secede over the issues of expanding slavery. Yet, not all Democrats, of course, were Southern. In the North, anti-Civil War Democrats were known as “copperheads” (as in the poisonous snake). Their solution was to give the South what they wanted and allow them to not only keep but expand slavery. Not only did the copperheads malign President Lincoln, they maimed and murdered blacks living in the North.
Southern Democrats passed Black Codes in 1865, expressly to deny to newly freed black slaves equal rights and access to the same privileges as whites. In 1866 the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Democrats to terrorize and lynch Republicans, both black and white. Many people today point to the 1965 Civil Rights Act enacted by Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson. However, the first Civil Rights Act was actually passed in 1866 by Republicans, and along with the Reconstruction Act of 1867, sought to ensure more fairness to blacks, especially in the South.
During the Reconstruction years following the Civil War, the first African Americans who were elected to serve in both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate were Republicans (and all from Deep South states). And who do you think helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)? It was Republicans who founded it on the one hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, February 12 ,1909.
With this strong evidence linking African Americans to the Republican Party following the Civil War and beyond, where did the momentum shift the other way? I’ve been reading a lot of books lately on the Roosevelt family — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. Interestingly, it was a Roosevelt whose actions likely contributed significantly to the decline of African American support for the Republican Party, and another Roosevelt, who some thirty or so years later, reached out in a time of great need and more than likely helped bring about the historic shift.
A significant turning point appears to have occurred in August of 1906. In Brownsville, Texas tensions had arisen in recent weeks between the white and black populations of the city. Three companies of the all-black Twenty-Fifty United States Infantry had arrived at nearby Fort Brown following their assignments in places like the Philippines and another post in Nebraska. Apparently local residents did not receive the news very well, because some shopkeepers found ways to discriminate against the black soldiers.
On the evening of August 12, a white woman was assaulted and the following night an early curfew was jointly called for by the mayor of Brownsville and one of the base’s officers. Instead of peace and quiet that evening, there were reports of shooting in the streets. Many citizens presumed the culprits were all black soldiers. To demand action, the citizenry called on Major Augustus P. Blocksom to remove all black troops.
Blocksom immediately demanded that the black troops provide evidence or face dismissal from the Army. There was continued opposition, with or without definitive evidence, and on November 6, President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black enlisted soldiers, making it the largest summary dismissal in the history of the United States Army. This was done without the soldiers having a chance to defend themselves.
Teddy Roosevelt had served with blacks in the Spanish-American war and had even appointed African Americans to office. With this action, how did blacks respond? According to the Texas State Historical Association, they were shocked and the whole incident blew up and was headed for the national stage. More explanation was provided in the book entitled The Roosevelts, An Intimate History (reviewed here), in reference to the 1912 election when Teddy decided to split from the national Republican party:
Roosevelt had lost a bitter primary battle to Taft. Teddy declared, “The parting of the ways has come.” The Republican Party must stand “for the rights of humanity or else it must stand for special privilege.”
The Progressive platform recognized a woman’s right to vote and labor’s right to organize, and promised to curtail campaign spending, defend natural resources, limit the workday to eight hours and the workweek to six day, and provide federal insurance for the elderly, the jobless, and the sick. (Only the aspirations of African Americans were ignored: Roosevelt rejected a plank drafted by W.E.B. DuBois calling for an end to lynching and segregation because he believed it would kill any hope of winning white votes in the South; Du Bois was so angered that he urged black voters to vote for the Democratic nominee; Roosevelt’s old ally Booker T. Washington sadly said he’d stick with Taft.)
This, I believe was the turning point when African Americans began a shift in their political allegiances. About thirty years later, Franklin Roosevelt would reach out to African Americans, again according to An Intimate History:
FDR did a better job included African Americans, as well as women, Catholics and Jews. FDR and Eleanor realized the world was different and his administration would be more sympathetic. Eleanor insisted on it. FDR has a second-level cabinet of sorts, his “black cabinet”. By 1935, one-third of all black Americans were receiving some kind of federal help. African Americans all over the country began shifting their political alliances from the party of Lincoln to FDR’s party.
Perhaps it was the government handouts that helped cement the alliance shift, for after all that was a time in United States history when so many people were in need during the years of the Great Depression, and the government was eager to make it better by intervening in the lives of struggling Americans.
Still, not all blacks aligned themselves with the Democrat Party. One of the most prominent African Americans who joined the Republican Party was none other than the man whose birthday we celebrated a few weeks ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, a fact confirmed by his niece Dr. Alveda King.
Dr. Martin Luther King fought against the likes of Democrat Eugene “Bull” Connor who allowed vicious dogs to attack blacks in Birmingham, Alabama and famously ordered hoses turned on black civil rights demonstrators. King also battled Democrat Georgia Governor Lester Maddox and uber-segregationist (and in my opinion racist) Governor George Wallace of Alabama. If you’ve ever heard of the term “yellow dog Democrat”, this is the era when it originated. Quoting the National Black Republication Association, “racist Democrats declared they would rather vote for a ‘yellow dog’ than a Republican because the Republican Party was known as the party for blacks.”
So there you have it, my theory that African American political loyalties shifted following the actions of two United States Presidents, both bearing the name Roosevelt. The question is, when considering historical facts, why is today’s Republican Party often maligned as racist? What think you?
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!