Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Reality Check on Civil Rights and Politics

We urge delegates in Cincinnati for the NAACP convention to heed the reminder of Bruce Bartlett in today's WSJ: if one asks, "Which American political party can lay claim to being the party of civil rights?" the answer is "The GOP."

Everyone knows that the Republicans are the party of Lincoln. Too few remember that the Republicans began in 1856 as a party of former Whigs, disaffected Democrats, imaginative Free Soilers and some reformed Know-Nothings specifically to contain the spread of slavery in the United States. Still fewer know that the Rs championed civil rights legislation for 100 years after the Civil War, only to be thwarted in their efforts by Southern Democrats.

We'll concede that Bartlett's brief article underplays the effect of FDR's New Deal politics on African-Americans, especially as it was coupled with Eleanor Roosevelt's heartfelt advocacy for civil rights. The same can be said for Johnson's support for civil rights and welfare legislation in the 1960s. Bartlett also could acknowledge more the poisonous effect of Nixon's "southern strategy," though he nicely notes how Nixon also supported affirmative action and government-contract set-asides for minority-owned businesses.

To Bartlett's litany of historic Republican actions to support the rights of African-Americans, we add that TR famously invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, a symbolic action of no small significance in its day, and that Johnson's civil rights legislation was passed largely because of Republican support in the congress, led by the skillful Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen.

Does anyone besides SWNID remember Condi Rice's stirring speech before the Republican Convention in 2000, when she recalled that in Little Rock her father could not find a single Democrat who would register him to vote but was enthusiastically welcomed by the tiny Republican Party in that city that would become a center of the struggle in the 1950s?

But let's imagine for a moment how different our Republic and the fate of its citizens might be if the civil rights legislation of Reconstruction, backed by the continued use of federal troops to enforce the law, had been sustained for a generation and not just a decade; if the anti-lynching laws advocated by McKinley, TR, Harding and Coolidge had been passed; if Wilson's segregation of the armed forces hadn't happened . . .

And if Jack Kemp had been elected Vice President in 1996. Could we then have eliminated forever the but also in things like Kemp's Britannica Online biography: "he championed conservative causes but also strongly supported civil rights legislation"?

That would be the least of the benefits.

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