Blacks and the Republican Party: Rational Choice or Complicity

By Ron Daniels | Last updated: May 31, 2010 - 11:04:57 AM

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A recent article in the New York Times reported that 32 Blacks are running for Congress as Republicans in this year's mid-term elections, the largest number since the era of Reconstruction. The article attributed the “surge” in Black Republican candidates to the election of Barack Obama as the first Black President of the United States.

At first glance this would seem to be a positive development. It seems logical that Blacks would want to be represented in both major political parties as a means of ensuring that our interests are being advanced and that we are not taken for granted by either party. For this reason, noted journalist and television talk show host Tony Brown was a strong proponent of Black engagement in the Republican Party for many years. Upon reflection, however, one might question whether the mainstream agenda of African Americans is compatible with the current politics and policies of the Republican Party. Put another way, though Blacks may have grievances with the Democrats, running for office as a Republican might be like jumping from the “frying pan into the fire.”

Blacks are certainly no strangers to the Republican Party. For nearly a century Blacks were staunchly entrenched in the Republican Party. This was largely due to the fact that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and “radical” Republicans like Charles Summer and Thaddeus Stevens led the charge to adopt the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Republican-controlled Congresses also passed far-ranging civil rights acts from 1866-1876, the post Civil War period known as Reconstruction. These Amendments and civil rights statutes led to the largest group of Blacks being elected to public office until the present. Blacks held posts as city and county officials, Congressmen, Lieutenant Governor and Senator. Black political power was so dominant in the South that some called the era “Black Reconstruction.” Virtually every one of these Black elected officials was a Republican. In the political competition between Democrats and Republicans in the South, newly enfranchised Blacks were a reliable base for the Republicans, a fact that not only had local implications, but ensured Republic political hegemony at the national level including the presidency.

Then came the infamous “betrayal of 1876,” the Hayes-Tilden Compromise. In a presidential election so close that it was deadlocked in the Electoral College, the Republicans agreed to a deal to pull all federal troops out of the South and essentially leave the plight of Blacks to the States in exchange for gaining enough Democratic votes to make the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, President. The effect of this betrayal was swift and predictable. To regain and maintain political power, Democrats in the South disenfranchised Blacks and ultimately instituted a rigid system of segregation/separation of the races. Blacks were stripped of political power, reduced to quasi-peonage in the labor market and socially ostracized. For decades after the betrayal of 1876, the few Blacks who could vote in the South were between a “rock and a hard place.” They were unwelcome in the Democratic Party and abandoned by the Republicans. Nonetheless, because of the legacy of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and achievements during Reconstruction, Blacks remained loyal to the Republicans. In the North, where there were very few Blacks prior to the great migrations, the antipathy of European immigrants who became Democrats for the most part as well as the legacy of Lincoln persuaded Blacks to remain Republicans.

A gradual political shift began with the great migrations to the North as Blacks increasingly became part of and identified with causes of labor/workers despite ongoing hostility and discrimination from White bosses and workers. The Great Depression and the rise to power of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the other factor contributing to the shift of Blacks from the Republican to the Democratic Party. With large blocks of Blacks concentrated in urban-industrial centers, it now made sense for the Democratic Party to compete for Black votes. FDR's New Deal was also like a God send for Blacks, mired at the bottom of the economic ladder during the Depression. I can still hear my mother and father reverently describing what a life saver the New Deal was for Black families. This coupled with FDR's capitulation to A. Philip Randolph's demand for a federal Fair Employment Practices Act (Randolph threatened a March on Washington), which FDR enacted by Executive Order, cemented the growing shift to and allegiance by Blacks to the Democratic Party.

However, the decisive move to the Democratic Party did not occur until the historic election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Black voters viewed their interests and allegiances to the two parties ideologically and pragmatically. Despite the promise of the New Deal a significant number of Blacks remained Republicans until the 60's because there were moderates and liberals in the Republican Party—yes, moderates and liberals, who identified with and supported Black issues and concerns, particularly the demand for voting rights and an end to segregation. Indeed, even after Kennedy's victory in 1960, there were Republicans who supported civil rights. Senator Everett Dirkson of Illinois, Senators Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and John Lindsey, Mayor of New York, come to mind as moderates and liberals who supported civil rights. No less a historical personage than Jackie Robinson was a staunch Republican and close friend of Nelson Rockefeller. Even Richard Nixon was not adverse to supporting initiatives viewed as favorable to Black interests. It is useful to recall that it was Nixon who adopted the concept of affirmative action upon the recommendation of Art Fletcher, a prominent African American Republican. Edward Brooke, an African American, was elected to the Senate as a Republican from Massachusetts. What Jackie Robinson, Art Fletcher and Senator Brooke have in common is that they could play prominent roles in a Party that had a moderate and liberal wing committed to civil rights, labor and women's issues—there was political space to advance the mainstream Black agenda in the Republican Party.

Unfortunately, that is not the case today. These notable figures would feel unwelcome in a Republican Party where liberal is a dirty word and moderates are a rare species. With conservative ideological purists like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, former Vice-President Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Patriots holding disproportionate sway over the Party, to be a Republican today is tantamount to being a conservative—Republican equals conservative with all this entails in terms of an anti-affirmative action/civil rights, anti-immigrant, anti-women's rights, anti-gay rights, anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-regulation, pro-big business, pro-gun, pro-war agenda! Today the most prominent Black Republicans are the likes of Armstrong Williams, Larry Elder, Ward Connerly, Allan Keyes, Ken Blackwell, Rev. Jesse Peterson and, of course, RNC Chairman Michael Steele. What they have in common is that they either embrace or have been whipped into line to extol the virtues of the reactionary conservative agenda referenced above, an agenda which is far removed from a mainstream Black agenda. Indeed, this is precisely why the Republican Party has made few gains in cutting into the Black vote as the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party—the Republican agenda is repugnant and a turn-off to the vast majority of Black voters.

So, for aspiring Republican candidates the lesson and message should be clear: to be effective in promoting a mainstream Black agenda you must fight to create political space on unwelcome terrain. The problem is, I suspect, most of these candidates have already either passed the conservative litmus test or are willing to acquiesce to the conservative cause to advance their individual interest. In any event, unless they are willing to fight for Black interests and aspirations, they will be mere pawns in the Republican/Conservative Party and in complicity with reactionaries!

(Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Founder of the Haiti Support Project. He is a Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW Web site and To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected].)