Little is less examined in our time than the assumption that, historically — and especially during the civil rights era — that racism is a Republican affliction, while equality is a Democrat virtue. In fact, history demonstrates the reverse.
Here are some facts.
—In 1854, the Republican Party was formed to end slavery. Democrats defended slavery, and subsequently triggered the Civil War to protect it.
—In 1862, President Lincoln, a Republican, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebellious states. Democrats were outraged.
—In 1864, Republicans championed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. Northern congressional Democrats opposed it. As Wayne Perryman notes, “Speaking for the Democratic Party, Fernando Wood of New York argued: ‘The proposed Amendment to abolish slavery in the … union is unjust … It involves the extermination of white men … Negroes … will take the place of the race [that will] be blotted out of existence.’”
—In 1866, Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull introduced the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Northern Democrats condemned it, and Democratic President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. Republicans overrode his veto.
—In 1866, Republicans drafted the 14th Amendment, granting blacks citizenship. Northern Democrats labored for two years to defeat it. It passed despite their efforts in 1868.
—In 1869, Republicans sponsored the 15th Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote. Democrats obstructed.
—In 1871, Republicans devised the Ku Klux Klan Act, to stop the Klan’s terrorism against blacks and white Republicans. Democrats rejected it. Ann Coulter points out that “liberal historian Eric Foner writes—‘[the KKK was] a military force, serving the interests of the Democratic Party…’”
—In 1875, Southern Democrats initiated Jim Crow laws, mandating blacks be confined to separate public spaces and facilities. Meanwhile, Republicans introduced new civil rights laws, guaranteeing equality in public accommodations.
—In 1894, Democrats attempted to undo Republican civil rights programs.
—In 1909, the NAACP formed, as Perryman writes, to “answer to the lynchings and other racist practices by Democrats…”
—In 1915, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (who re-segregated federal facilities) showed the first ever motion picture in the White House, “The Birth of a Nation,” a racist film produced by a Democrat depicting blacks as unintelligent and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic.
—In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education dealt a blow to segregationist Democrats. In response, over one hundred Democratic congressmen signed the “Southern Manifesto” as a commitment to segregation (J. William Fulbright, Bill Clinton’s mentor, who later opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a signatory). Only two Republicans signed.
—In 1957, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne to enforce civil rights in Little Rock, Arkansas, when Democratic Governor Orval Faubus (whom Bill Clinton publicly embraced at his gubernatorial inauguration) not only would not comply with the recent Supreme Court decision to integrate schools, but stood as a blockade in the doorway of the school to display his support for segregation.
—In 1957, a Civil Rights Act was proposed by Republican President Eisenhower. All forty-three Republicans in the Senate, but only twenty-nine Democrats, supported it. The legislation faced its greatest obstacle from 18 hostile Democrats, five of whom were northerners. Democratic congressman and future President Lyndon Johnson (who had a long anti-civil rights history, voting repeatedly against anti-lynching bills) did his best to cripple the legislation.
—In 1960, another Civil Rights Act was passed, again strongest opposition emanated from Democrats.
—In 1964, an additional Civil Rights Act received more votes as a percentage of Republicans than Democrats. President Johnson, who flipped from his anti-civil rights platform to sign the bill, was alleged by an Air Force One steward to have said, “I’ll have them n*ggers voting Democrat for two hundred years.”
—In 1965, the Voting Rights Act passed, receiving more votes as a percentage of Republicans than Democrats.
—In 1972, Congressional records confirm that, yet again the Equal Employment Act received a higher percentage of Republican support than Democrat support. Republican President Richard Nixon (who had a strong record supporting civil rights) signed it into law.
—Democrat Senator Robert Byrd served in Congress from 1953 until his death in 2010. In his earlier years, Bryd was a Klu Klux Klan Kleagle (recruiter), and he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
—Democrat Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (father of Al Gore, Jr.), voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, filibustering for no fewer than 74 days.
Certainly Republicans were not perfect. Republican Barry Goldwater, for instance, voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but, as Ann Coulter explains, “not because he supported segregation — he had long since desegregated his family’s department stores, as well as the Arizona National Guard. He was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP. Goldwater voted against the 1964 act because he was a libertarian opposed to the act’s restrictions on private property, which he believed to be beyond Congress’s powers under the commerce clause of the Constitution.” And surely one can find racist statements made by some Republicans (As Jon Chait documents of Lee Atwater and Bill Buckley).
But racism is best assessed by actions rather than words. Unable to dodge their racist past, Democrats have subsequently fantasized that 1960’s racists switched parties to the GOP, exonerating themselves while indicting today’s Republicans. That myth, however, will be scrutinized in another post.