While they are no longer racist in the same sense now, the Democratic party was at its conception and for most of its history, completely and utterly racist. Yet anytime Democrats are almost forced to look back at some of the most immoral parts of their party’s history, they give the same excuses. Democrats claim the parties flipped in the 1960s, and it is now the Republicans who are the racists. If pressed on that claim they go even further, stating that President Lincoln, the first Republican President and the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation and was heavily involved passing the 13th amendment, would be a Democrat today. However, when looking back at the history of the parties, it is clear that no switch ever happened, and the Republicans are as much in support of civil rights today as they were back then.
First, it should be noted the claim that President Lincoln would be a Democrat today is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and should not be considered. We simply don’t know what a President from the 1860s would think about modern issues such as net neutrality or global warming. I may think a Christian man from such a time would surely be disgusted by the Democrats today. You may think he’d be a bleeding heart liberal. But neither one of us can be 100% sure.
It is also important to know what type of racism we are discussing. You may think as I, that affirmative action and the ideology of intersectionality that many on the left support are racist. And it is true that all racism is at its root the same thing. But I am simply honing in on one aspect of racism that was the most prevalent at the time: white supremacy.
The Racist History of the Democratic Party
The Republican party was founded in 1854 by anti-slavery members of the Whig party, with the goal of preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. At this point, the Republican party was obviously not a racist party. (Though some beliefs they had might be considered racist now, for the circumstances of the times they were not racist.) Republicans had huge success in the North, with Presidential candidate John C. Fremont winning 11/16 northern states in his defeat to Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, in the 1856 election.
Worried by the anti-slavery position of the newly formed party, the South, which was at the time a Democratic stronghold, threatened to secede if a Republican was elected President. Sure enough, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the South did just that, and the Civil War began. Clearly, at this point, it was the Democrats and not the Republicans who were racist.
During the Civil War Democrats in the North opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. (To be fair, there were legitimate legal questions about the constitutionality of such an action.) No Senate Democrats voted for the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, with only 14 House Democrats voting in favor. (And getting to 14 required some dirty politics by President Lincoln.) At this point, it was still only the Democrats who were racist.
The Civil War ended and the nation entered the Reconstruction Era. During this time, the 14th and 15th amendments which secured citizenship, equal protection under the law, and voting rights for black males were widely opposed by Democrats in Congress. Things began to improve in the South for black people because the Republicans in Congress essentially upheld the law in the South using federal troops. At this point, Democrats were still racist.
Reconstruction sadly ended abruptly with the Compromise of 1877. The election of 1876 was disputed, and the Republicans and Democrats behind the scenes made one of the evilest deals in American political history. The Democrats would let the Republican presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, become President, but President Hayes would remove federal troops from the South. As soon as this happened, black codes and then Jim Crow Laws began to dominate the South, a Democratic stronghold, delaying the widespread adoption of civil rights by decades. While this was an immoral action by both sides, the Republicans did it for corrupt political reasons and the Democrats did it for racist reasons.
Race was not as important an issue for a long time in the United States, but what little process that was happening was undone by President Woodrow Wilson; a Democrat and the Father of the Progressive Era. He resegregated the federal government and allowed The Birth of a Nation, the racist film which revived the once waning support of the KKK, to be the first movie screened at the White House. In the 1910s, the Democrats were still the racists.
The next Democratic President, Franklin Roosevelt, would continue the racist traditions of his Democratic predecessor. Many of the New Deal programs did not provide equal benefits to black citizens and allowed shops in unions to prevent black employees from being hired or receiving equal treatment. He appointed former KKK member, Hugo Black, to the Supreme Court. Although not racist against black people, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two was racist. Though the Democrats were still racist, it is interesting to note that black Americans started to vote Democrat in this era, and not the civil rights era of the 1960s, likely due to wanting what little benefits they could get.
First Steps Away Forward
Thankfully, the 1940s saw the first steps of the Democratic party ending its racism. A split began to form between Northern and Southern Democrats, as southern racism began to affect the party at the polls. In the 1946 midterms, Democrats lost 55 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate, giving Republicans control of Congress. In response to these losses, President Truman, a Democrat, desegregated the military, and the Democratic party added anti-racism goals to its official party platform before the 1948 election. This rift would cause some Southern Democrats to leave the party and form the Dixiecrats, winning four traditionally Democratic states in the 1948 election with Strom Thurmond as their candidate.
While improvements had been made, the Democrats were still the racists in the 1950s. Republicans had civil rights in their party platform and attempted to pass multiple civil rights acts. Nearly all of these acts were blocked in the Senate by Democrats, led by none other than Lyndon B. Johnson, who would one day sign such an act into law as President. It was also in this decade that ‘Separate but Equal’ would be ruled unconstitutional by a Supreme Court led by Republican Earl Warren. Democrats would attempt to enshrine segregation with Democratic Governor Orval Faubus directing the Arkansas National Guard to block black children from attending a previously all-white school. Thankfully, this was averted, with Republican President Dwight Eisenhower sending in the military to ensure desegregation. The Democrats were still clearly the racists.
Then come the 1960’s when the parties supposedly switched. But the facts show that just isn’t true. In 1964 the 24th amendment was passed, abolishing poll taxes and forbidding voters to be prevented from voting in federal primaries due to race. Without this amendment, whites-only primaries would still be occurring. If they stopped being racist then would that have really required an amendment? There are two pieces of evidence used by Democrats to argue that their party reversed course on racism.
The first is that President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, but this development is misleading. President Johnson had originally filibustered similar legislation in the Senate. It took a massive movement lead by people such a the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the work of the NAACP, and the March on Washington before President Johnson had a change of heart. Furthermore, while 65% of Democrats did vote for the act, so did 80% of Republicans! If the parties switched, shouldn’t the Democrats have a higher voting percentage? This just shows the Democrats became less racist, but it should not be construed to suggest the Republicans at the same time got more racist.
The next point made is that after the act passed, racist Democrats left the party and found their home in the Republican Party through the so-called ‘Southern Strategy.’ Their evidence for this is the election of 1964 and Strom Thurmond. In the landslide reelection of President Johnson in 1964, much of the South did indeed vote for the Republican, Barry Goldwater. And it was in retaliation to Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights Act. This would seem on the surface to confirm that Republicans became racist, but once more it’s untrue. Goldwater didn’t support the Civil Rights Act, but he did so because of libertarian, not racist values. He simply didn’t want the government to force its morality on private business.
It becomes clear that 1964 was an outlier and not the beginning of a trend. If 1964 represented a big flip where all the racists are now Republican, we could expect similar results in 1968, 1972, etc. However, the reverse occurred. In 1968, the South voted for the racist American Independent’s candidate, George Wallace. In 1972, the South voted for a Republican again, but this time the entire nation was in support of the candidate. It was a landslide victory for Richard Nixon, only losing one state and Washington D.C. In 1976, the South was the single most important group in Democrat, Jimmy Carter’s election. In the 1980’s it did vote for Reagan, but it was by low margins that his 1980 victory was possible. In Reagan’s landslide victory of 1984, similar to Nixon’s, the South once more voted for the enigmatic Republican. Though they voted for Reagan, many states such as Tennessee and Arkansas went back to voting Democratic for Bill Clinton in 1992. The South did not become reliably Republican until the 2000s, when racism was an ostracized opinion supported by a tiny minority. And just like the election of 1964, Strom Thurmond was an exception and not the norm. Twenty-one Democratic Senators voted no on the Civil Rights Act. 19 signed the pro-segregation, Southern Manifesto. But Thurmond was the only one to change parties. All other Senators stayed in the Democratic party. Wouldn’t they have all changed sides if the parties flipped?
It is clear that when it comes to the issue of race, the parties never switched. We did not have one racist party become pure while a pure party became racist. Instead, America has progressed to reject racism and both parties now wholeheartedly renounce the evils of racism. The abolishment of slavery and the rejection of racism as a norm should be one of our proudest moments as a country and one of the most important bipartisan agreements. It should not be used to slander the one party that consistently opposed racism and fought for increased civil rights. Especially when there is absolutely no evidence to support such a claim. It’s 2019, it’s time to admit neither party supports such racist things, and move forward once and for all.
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