February 24th, 2009 18:29 EST
Blacks Not Wanted: Where Did the GOP Go Wrong?
Michael Steele`s election as the first black chairman of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln`s 200th birthday have created a lot of discussion about the relationship - or lack of one - between African Americans and the party of Lincoln.
It stands in stark contrast to the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction. Buoyed by Lincoln`s decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks at that time strongly supported the Republican Party.
Although Lincoln gets credit for freeing the slaves, he was more interested in saving the Union than in making sure African Americans were treated fairly. In fact, in 1858, during one of a series of debates with Stephen Douglas, he said:
"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
"And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
Blacks, most of whom lived in the South, supported the Republican Party not only because of Lincoln, but also because virulent white segregationist politicians in the South were Democrats.
African Americans remained aligned with Republicans until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the advent of the New Deal.
The changed relationship between blacks and the Democratic Party was solidified with Harry Truman`s decision to desegregate the military in 1948 and sign Executive Order 9980, eliminating racial discrimination in federal employment. Lyndon B. Johnson deepened the bond further with his support for civil-rights legislation in the 1960s.
Despite African Americans` dramatic shift to the Democratic Party, the GOP still got a respectable share of the black vote as late as 1960. Dwight Eisenhower got 39 percent of the African-American vote in 1956, and Richard Nixon got 32 percent in his narrow loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960.
But Nixon would eventually be associated with the Republican "Southern strategy" of exploiting racism to win white votes. In 1970, Kevin Phillips, a GOP strategist, told the New York Times, "From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote, and they don`t need any more than that." Referring to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he added: "The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That`s where the votes are."
Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thought he could win with that strategy, but he was trounced. Johnson got 94 percent of the black vote - a record that stood until Barack Obama got 96 percent of it in November.
One of the most popular Republican presidents in history, Ronald Reagan, offended blacks and many whites when he kicked off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were slain.
Republicans just don`t get it. When it comes to the black vote, the party is over for the party of Lincoln.
GOP leaders elected Michael Steele as their chairman partly to counter the influence of Obama. But he faces an uphill battle.
The NAACP recently issued its legislative report card for the 110th Congress, covering 2007-08. On issues important to African Americans, no Senate Republican got an A. There were only two B`s, one C, one D, and 39 F`s. (Grades were withheld for partial terms.) By contrast, among Senate Democrats, there were 40 A`s, five B`s, two C`s, two D`s, and no F`s.
The pattern was similar in the House: among Republicans, one B, four C`s, 10 D`s, and 159 F`s; among Democrats, 185 A`s, 28 B`s, seven C`s, one D, and no F`s.
Former President Gerald Ford often reminded people that he was a Ford, not a Lincoln. Today`s GOP is not even a Ford. It`s an Edsel.
George E. Curry is a former Washington correspondent and New York bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune and was editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.