Hannah Ihms -
Obama’s relationship with African-American voters just got a bit more dysfunctional. This marks the third year he’s been too busy to personally address the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). The best stand-in the White House could provide was Vice President Biden, who emphasized the NAACP's purpose: “On civil rights, your raison d’etre, the reason for our existence, I want to remind everybody of one thing: Remember, remember what this [organization], at its core, was all about… It was all about the franchise. It was about the right to vote. Because when you have the right to vote, you have the right to change things.” He then claimed that Republicans are threatening this basic right: “[Republicans] see a different future, where voting is made harder, not easier, where the Justice Department is even prohibited from challenging any of those efforts to suppress votes.”
It’s ironic that Vice President Biden would decide to level this charge, given the history of his own party. It is the Democrat party, not the Republican party, that has sought to disenfranchise voters through legal chicanery and, when that fails, outright coercion.
The Republican Party was formed in opposition to slavery. One of its co-founders was Charles Sumner, who in 1865 as a U.S. Senator gave a two-day speech against slavery and was mercilessly clubbed by a pro-slavery, Democratic representative on the Senate floor. Later, in the midst of the Civil War, it was a Republican president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a Republican Congress that passed the Thirteenth Amendment that in 1865 outlawed slavery: all 116 of the Republicans in the U.S. Congress voted for this amendment while only 19 of the 82 Democrats did (and these were the Northern Democrats). Even though the Civil War was over, intense prejudice still existed. As former slave states rejoined the union in the days of Reconstruction, many former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers were present in the Democrat party and not all were content to respect the rights of African-Americans. Congressmen required state legislatures to fully endorse the Thirteenth Amendment in order for their representatives to be reinstated in Congress.
When Southern States adopted Black Codes to intimidate African-Americans, it was a Republican Congress that passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It overruled the Dred Scott decision by affirming citizenship for all people born in the U.S., requiring due process in legal matters, and instituting equal protection of all citizens before the law. It was also a Republican Congress that passed the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 that prohibits any citizen of age from being denied the right to vote, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Together, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments held promise of new opportunities for African-Americans. Practice, however, proved difficult. In 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels was an African-American candidate for federal office in Mississippi. He was a Republican, and his political opponents mercilessly disputed his candidacy. Though he was an American, a free man born to free parents, and never enslaved, Mississippi Democrats claimed that he had only been a citizen for two years—from the date that the Fourteenth Amendment had been ratified in 1868—and thus did not meet the requirement that a U.S. Senator be a citizen for at least nine years before assuming office. Overcoming these objections, on February 25, 1870 Mr. Revels became the first African-American U.S. Senator and the first African-American elected to federal office. He restarted the representation of the state U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis abandoned to join the Confederacy.
The significance of this was not lost on his contemporaries. As fellow U.S. Senator, Republican James Nye from Nevada, said: “Jefferson Davis went out to establish a government whose cornerstone should be the oppression and perpetual enslavement of a race because their skin differed in color from his. Sir, what a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today! In the place of that proud, defiant man, who marched out to trample under foot the Constitution and the laws of the country he had sworn to support, comes back one of that humble race whom he would have enslaved forever to take and occupy his seat upon this floor.”
Republicans had fought for the right for African-Americans to vote, and African-Americans fought for the right to be elected as Republicans. All seven of the African-Americans elected to federal office in the 41st and 42nd Congresses were Republicans.
Such “uppitiness” was not to be tolerated. If African-Americans could not be kept down through legal disputes, it could be solved in other ways. The antagonism that fueled the Civil War found other outlets--the Ku Klux Klan was born. It served as the domestic terrorist wing of the Democrat party, targeting Republican voters.
It took the action of former Civil War General U. S. S. Grant and legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to stamp down the KKK.
Even with this action, voter intimidation continued. One thinly veiled threat in a Charleston News and Courier read, “Killing is not always murder, and violations of law are not always a crime. There is an earlier law than the statutes--the law of self-preservation. That law was the guide and master in South Carolina in 1876, and it will be appealed to whenever there is any danger of a return to the vileness of negro rule." Appealing to the members of the U.S. House in 1882 to defend African-Americans' right to vote, Republican U.S. Representative and former slave John Lynch said: "They were faithful and true to you then; they are no less so today. And yet they ask no special favors as a class; they ask no special protection as a race. They feel that they purchased their inheritance, when upon the battlefields of this country, they watered the tree of liberty with the precious blood that flowed from their loyal veins. They ask no favors, they desire; and must have; an equal chance in the race of life." The Republican Party reprinted excerpts from Mr. Lynch's speech in their Republican Campaign Text Book for 1882, and documented voter fraud and intimidation in Democratic strongholds.
As time went on, there were extensive efforts to repeal the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments even in 1900, and the flawed "historical" film “The Birth of a Nation” was used as a recruiting film for the KKK beginning in 1915. This was the first film shown in the White House, thanks to President Woodrow Wilson. Direct quotes from President Wilson’s book “A History of the American People,” appeared throughout the film, such as: "The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation... until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country." President Wilson segregated the federal government and supported a bill that would have made it a felony for a white man to marry a black woman in Washington, D.C. His endorsement of “The Birth of a Nation” allowed its director to stave off onslaughts from the NAACP.
Between 1882 and 1964, 4,743 lynchings were documented in the U.S.--3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites. Many Republican party platforms condemned lynchings and Republicans and Democrats introduced anti-lynching bills, but the bulk of the Democratic party successfully stamped out each of these bills and did not address lynchings in their party platform. In 1932, more than 75% of the African-American vote went to Herbert Hoover over FDR; FDR won, however. During his four terms in office, the Democrat party took a new stance on racial discrimination, and began to win over African-American voters. FDR's successor, Harry S. Truman, became the first Democratic president to support pro-African-American policy, and faced intense opposition from the bulk of his own party. Some Democrats joined Eisenhower in his fight for civil rights. Finally, in the 1960s, a Republican Congress advanced civil rights legislation that a Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson, signed into law.
From FDR’s second term to the present day, a majority of African-American voters have voted Democrat. But this trend is not inevitable. Outspoken African-American conservatives such as Allen West, Deneen Borelli, and Thomas Sowell are showing that the legacy of African-Americans such as Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington is alive and well.
Thomas Sowell’s advice on regaining the African-American vote is to boldly show African-Americans the alternatives open to them. This is exactly what Mitt Romney did this week in his address to the NAACP: “When it comes to education reform, candidates cannot have it both ways – talking up education reform, while indulging the same groups that are blocking reform. You can be the voice of disadvantaged public-school students, or you can be the protector of special interests like the teachers unions, but you can’t be both. I have made my choice: As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won’t let any special interest get in the way.”
African-Americans have a long and powerful political history. As they become better acquainted with it, their view of the Democrat Party and their place in it may change. If African-Americans look elsewhere for a political home, we must ensure they find a viable alternative.