Let’s Not Forget The Racist History Of The Democratic Party

A party that now champions minority rights was once strongly opposed to them

Originally published by The Odyssey Online: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/lets-not-forget-the-racist-history-of-the-democratic-party

It’s no secret that the Democratic Party has a lead in the minority vote in this election cycle. People of color are becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party. This is clearly a problem. How could a political party continue to exist in the American political landscape when it only garners the support of a diminishing white population?

Clearly, the Democrats are doing something right. But have Democratic policies made things easier for minorities? Not exactly. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill led to the mass incarceration of millions, particularly African-Americans. President Obama is responsible fordozens of deportation raids, tearing families apart.

Nonetheless, Democrats have consistently promised to make lives easier for people of color by preaching a platform of social and economic justice. Would it surprise you that this wasn’t always the case?

Many know that Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president, abolished slavery. But do many know that his Vice President, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat was strongly opposed to him doing so? After his assassination, President Andrew Johnson was against granting any rights to the newly freed slaves and ushered in an era of Reconstruction that enforced Jim Crow laws and restricted civil liberties.

So how did the Democrats and Republicans “switch” sides in advancing minority rights? The answer is, they never did. Not completely, anyways.

It is an injustice to absolve the Democratic Party of its overt, racist policies and practices. And while Democrats have sought to correct this injustice, it cannot be ignored that both parties have alienated the minority vote when it did not guarantee a political incentive. Minorities have always faced barriers to voting such as literary tests, poll taxes, photo identification and much more. A diminished colored voter turnout benefited both white-dominated parties. It meant that both parties could stand idly while Jim Crow laws and segregationist policies continued to plague the African-American community. It was a political incentive to ignore these problems and perpetuate the system that denigrated African-Americans.

The real “switch” comes to fruition during the 1960 Presidential Election where incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy were campaigning for the presidency. This was the first presidential year that the minority vote mattered.

Why?

During the 1950’s, civil rights leaders advocated for an increase in political voice for the minority community. The right to vote for African-Americans at that time was no more than an severely limited, ostensible civil liberty that proved that blacks didn’t need enhanced political advantages. The NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) promoted voter registration for African-Americans by creating and supporting independent voting organizations. This was especially important after the landmark Supreme Court Case Smith v. Allwright, which ended all-white primaries and was one of the first steps in enfranchising African-Americans. As a result, black voter registration increased from 3% in 1940 to 16.8% in 1950 and to 29.4% in 1960.

President Eisenhower was perhaps one of the first Presidents who openly addressed a move towards racial equality by integrating the Armed Forces in 1948. In addition, he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to assist the integration of nine black students at Central High School. Eisenhower was a Republican who advocated for racial equality during his time in office. At the end of his term, he pushed Vice President Richard Nixon to court the black vote or risk losing it to rising Democratic star, John F. Kennedy.

The election of 1960 was a turning point in American politics. White politicians could no longer ignore segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. African-Americans now composed a significant chunk of the voting electorate. The countless problems and injustices they faced and wanted to fix had to matter on a national level. Civil rights leaders took advantage of this. Both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy promised increased civil rights for African-Americans should they be elected as the next President.

And for a time, both Nixon and Kennedy had an equal opportunity to win over black voters. But let’s not forget the function of political parties — that is to mobilize and manipulate voters for enhanced political power. Did either candidate really sympathize with the African-American community? Would either candidate really commit to increased civil rights for African-Americans?

On October 19, 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Atlanta during a sit-in. He was held longer than most protesters and sentenced to a worker’s camp because he violated his probation. Kennedy, in a clear political move convinced the judge to grant King bond, which led to his release. This convinced many African-Americans to vote for Kennedy over Nixon. In one of the closest elections in American history, Kennedy won. Had he not won over blacks, the election could have gone to Nixon.

The election of 1960 is a lesson for the minority community. When your vote matters, white politicians will pander to your needs in exchange for a vote. The Democratic Party is hailed as the party of equality because it managed to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and continued to listen to the needs of the minority community following the 1960 election.

A racist Arizona senator named Barry Goldwater announced his candidacy for president in 1964. Refusing to support a Civil Rights Bill and preaching segregationist policies, he attracted white Southerners to the Republican Party who wanted to keep Jim Crow laws in place. Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 election in a historic landslide against Lyndon B. Johnson, but he began the modern American conservative movement and turned Southern states red.

It is important to keep in mind that the Democratic Party’s racism doesn’t magically disappear after the 1960 election. Black voters did not matter until they made up a sizable portion of the electorate. The notion held by liberals that the Democratic Party is and always was the party for allAmericans is simply not true. It is not a Republican attack to criticize this hidden history of the Democrats. The Democratic Party was the party of the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and racist policies. To simply claim that the parties “switched” policy positions is an illogical claim.

It is important to criticize the racist history of the Democratic Party because it is the first step in reconciling the ugly truth in American politics. The minority community has generally tended to vote Democratic because of its commitment to social justice and economic welfare. But the Democratic Party doesn’t get a pass or gets to claim a moral high ground to Republicans because it currently champions civil rights. There was a time when the Republican Party also committed time and effort to push for racial equality. But in both cases, the incentive to push for these initiatives was for the votes, not the people. If it weren’t for the courageous men and women who fought for voting rights, politicians would still ignore the issues facing minority communities. It is important that we continue to increase voting rights for all citizens and remove barriers that prevent citizens from voting.


Sources: Beyerlein, Kraig, and Kenneth T. Andrews. “Black voting during the civil rights movement: A micro-level analysis.” Social Forces 87.1 (2008): 65–93.