Conservatives Try to Rewrite Civil Rights History (Again)


Rand Paul’s unsuccessful speech at Howard University—where he tried, and failed, to paint the Republican Party as the true home for African American voters—didn’t happen in a vacuum. It drew from a heavily revisionist history of American politics, in which the GOP never wavered in its commitment to black rights, and the Democratic Party embraced its role as a haven for segregationists. In this telling of history, black support for Democrats is a function of liberal demagoguery and crude identity politics. If African Americans truly understood their interests, the argument goes, they’d have never left the Republican Party.

Conservative writer Kevin Williamson offered a version of this history in a large feature for the National Review last year, and this week, he’s back with a smaller take—highlighting Barry Goldwater’s contributions to a local civil rights fight in Arizona—that comes to the same conclusion: Democrats were never on the right side of civil rights. Here’s Williamson (please forgive the long blockquote, it’s necessary):

Barry Goldwater was not the most important opponent of racial segregation in Arizona, nor was he the most important champion of desegregating the public schools. What he was was on the right side: He put his money, his political clout, his business connections, and his reputation at the service of a cause that was right and just. While he was doing all that, his eventual nemesis, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a low-rent practitioner of the most crass sort of racist politics, was gutting anti-lynching laws and assuring Democrats that he would offer those “uppity Negroes” “just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”

For more than a century, the Republican party had been the party of civil rights, of abolition, of emancipation, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and the NAACP did not represent a break from that tradition, but a continuation of it.

It was a masterpiece of politics that allowed the Democrats to convince the electorate that they were the party of civil rights, that they had not until the day before yesterday been the party of lynching — even as that very same cabal of segregationist Democrats that had tried to block or gut every single significant piece of civil-rights legislation for decades, still led by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, remained comfortably entrenched in the Senate.

The core of what Williamson wants you to believe is that neither party saw substantive change in its position on civil rights. But there’s almost no evidence for that view. The Republican Party that championed civil rights in the mid-to-late 19th century all but abandoned the cause in the beginning of the 20th, as white America turned away from blacks, and left them to suffer at the hands of segregationists and lynch mobs. Key GOP politicians (like President Taft) embarked on a campaign to wash the Republican Party of its connection to blacks, in order to expand its constituency in the white South.

Likewise, the same Democratic Party that advanced white supremacy throughout the same period—and into the New Deal—began to shift in the opposite direction. First as a result of Roosevelt’s domestic programs—which gave Democrats a black constituency for the first time in history—and then as an attempt to win votes in Northern industrial cities, where blacks were migrating in large numbers. That’s not to discount principle—figures like Hubert Humphrey were genuine supporters of black rights, and successfully pushed the Democratic Party to adopt a civil rights plank at the 1948 convention (thus sparking a segregationist revolt).

“The masterpiece of politics” that Williamson derides was actually just an attempt—primarily by Democrats—to deliver benefits to black voters, in the form of political protection and domestic programs. It’s for that reason that Democrats began winning greater and greater shares of the black vote throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Williamson dismisses the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and Goldwater’s opposition to it—as a minor variable, something that shouldn’t discount the GOP’s history on civil rights. But the fact of the matter is that the Act was a transformative piece of legislation, and a necessary step on the long road to racial equality. It is arguably the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed, and Goldwater’s opposition is correctly seen as a blemish on his legacy. Indeed, it’s correctly seen as a blemish on Williamson’s own magazine, which opposed the civil-rights movement and voiced solidarity with segregationists.

Yes, the Democratic Party was founded as the party of white populism, and thus, of white supremacy. But institutions change, and by the middle of the 20th century, activism, hard work, and political maneuvering had turned the Party of Andrew Johnson into a real vehicle for black rights.

The GOP transformation wasn’t as dramatic, but it happened. Decades of neglect set the stage for a gradual embrace of former segregationists, who had either left the Democratic Party, or has been ejected. The South’s shift to a Republican stronghold, the collapse of white support for the Democratic Party—all of these are part of the story.

The problem with Williamson’s piece isn’t that he wants to uncover a narrative of Republican civil-rights advocacy. That’s an admirable goal, and one I support. The problem is that he’s used this as an occasion for partisan point scoring, and in the process, has twisted history to fit his ideological concerns. If his piece says anything, it’s that he doesn’t want to learn—he wants to be right.

You can see as much in his follow-up, where he hammers on Democratic opposition to the Civil Rights Act, ignoring its wide Democratic support in both chambers of Congress—46 of 67 Democrats voted for it in the Senate (69 percent) and 153 of 244 Democrats voted for it in the House (63 percent). The percentages were larger among Republicans, which owes itself to the fact that the chief divide on civil rights was sectional. Southern and border state state lawmakers voted against the law, Northern and Midwestern ones voted for it. And when Williamson dismisses the partisan shift of the South, he ignores the presidential vote, opting instead for congressional totals.

Again, it’s misleading: White Southerners jumped ship from Democratic presidential candidates in the 1960s, and this was followed by a similar shift on the congressional level, and eventually, the state legislative level. That the former two took time doesn’t discount the first.

I’m still unsure of what this revisionism is supposed to accomplish. If it’s to appeal to actual African American voters, you might want to try a different approach, since this one won’t work. But if it’s to assuage guilt and assure conservatives that they are, and have always been, on the right side of history, then—to borrow from President Obama—please proceed.