Racist Republicans long on wrong side of history

Roundup
tags: election 2016, GOP, Trump



Roger Chapman is associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

Donald Trump is probably no more racist than Ronald Reagan, who, after gaining the Republican nomination in 1980, chose Philadelphia, Miss., as his first campaign stop. This is the town where the Ku Klux Klan savagely killed three civil rights workers in 1964. When Reagan spoke at that town — 16 years after the murders — he emphasized his belief in “states’ rights.”

Back then, “states’ rights” was code language that appealed to certain people who were resentful of the strong reach of the federal government to put an end to racial segregation in the Deep South. The people the term “states’ rights” resonated with most strongly were those smarting over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

An earlier Republican strategist under President Richard Nixon came up with the “Southern strategy,” which used certain code language to garner white votes in the Deep South by playing on lingering racial prejudice. This is the point when the Southern white majority firmly switched its political allegiance from Democrat to Republican.

History shows that white Southerners gradually left the Democratic Party when it started becoming more like the original party of Abraham Lincoln — the party that issued the Emancipation Proclamation and amended the U.S. Constitution to give citizenship rights to former slaves, suffrage to black men, and equal protection to all citizens (including former slaves and their children).

After World War II, the Democrats, under President Harry Truman, inserted into their platform a plank for civil rights. This included integrating the U.S. military. Such bold action by the “liberal” Democrats caused consternation among Southern Democratic leaders. It led to a rebellion and eventually a switch of political parties.

I doubt Trump is any more racist than former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, who in 2002 regaled the memory of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. This was during a 100th birthday celebration for Thurmond, who in 1948 had been the standard-bearer for the “States’ Rights Democratic Party.”

Lott recalled with pride how his state had voted for Thurmond, adding “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.” Why did Thurmond run for president representing the “states’ rights” third party? He was displeased with Truman’s new agenda to promote equal rights for blacks.

To his credit, President George W. Bush denounced Lott’s statement on the 1948 election. But that does not change the fact of the 1988 election, when supporters of candidate George H.W. Bush resorted to racist tactics by using the infamous Willie Horton ad.

All of this history seems to be in harmony with those who have questioned whether President Barack Obama was really born in America. Trump is not the only Republican who has been obsessed by this question on the origins of the first black president, a question tinged with racism.

If the Republican establishment is serious about its contempt for Trump’s alleged racism, as well as his less-than-kind words toward women or handicapped individuals, then it can apologize for having been on the wrong side of history.

But as the famous Mississippian author William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

To kill this past will require policy changes to match any anti-racist commitment.





comments powered by Disqus