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Conservatives must embrace the GOP’s once proud legacy on civil rights.
Republicans are fond of emphasizing that the party was founded by Lincoln, who freed the slaves. But the GOP’s role in the history of civil rights is even richer than the Great Emancipator. If Republicans can remember this legacy, perhaps there is some hope that the party might again attract the black voters who have felt unwelcome in its ranks for decades.
It’s also worth recalling that, until recently, the history of the Democratic Party was overwhelmingly pro-slavery and pro-segregation. Lincoln’s successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and strongly resisted the passage of the 14th Amendment, which ensured equal rights and protections under the law, and was championed by Republicans. The subsequent Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant implemented the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, which helped dismantle the KKK and protect black voting rights. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
In contrast, the next Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, was returned to office in 1892 by campaigning against the Republican-sponsored Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have strengthened Grant’s civil rights legislation. Not only did Cleveland successfully kill that bill, he helped launch a movement to repeal and undermine civil rights legislation across the country.
Over two decades later, Democrat Woodrow Wilson declared that segregation was “not a humiliation, but a benefit.” When a Racial Equality Proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the League of Nations in 1919, Wilson single-handedly killed the legislation in order to protect American segregation. This was a pivotal act, which helped push the Japanese (who had proposed the equality clause) out of the international community formed after World War I and contributed to causing World War II.
While FDR’s New Deal coalition advocated a number of policies which were positive for African Americans, particularly the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, his administration’s record on racial equality was mixed at best: he appointed J. Edgar Hoover, who would abuse his position as FBI director to intimidate and otherwise undermine civil rights activists throughout his decades-long tenure. He actively supported the internment of Japanese Americans. And while FDR pushed for integration in government contracting jobs, his coalition was heavily dependent on rural white southerners, so he said little about ending segregation altogether. In fact, black agricultural and domestic workers (the majority of black laborers) were explicitly excluded from receiving benefits from the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This whites-only welfare system, in turn, exacerbated socioeconomic inequality over generations.
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