Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

African Americans and Political Party Alliegance

Here's what passes for historical understanding on a blog I used to follow:

"Name the political party that started the Ku Klux Klan to lynch and terrorize blacks, passed the discriminatory Black Codes and Jim Crow laws and fought to prevent the passage of every civil rights law beginning with the civil rights laws of the 1860s, and continuing with the civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s.

"Which party kicked all of the blacks out of federal government jobs in 1912? Which party stood in the school house doors, turned skin-burning fire hoses on blacks and let loose vicious dogs in the 1960s? Which party was opposed to Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington and had Dr. King wiretapped and investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Communist?"

* * * *

This highly selective reading of history from a conservative Republican perspective aims to bring black voters into the Republican party. The writer bludgeons history into ideological submission. Historically speaking, it is crude in the extreme.

On race, Democrats and Republicans have truly been the parties of Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Overt and unconscious racism has been their stock in trade since the party system in America came into existence. And even before party politics guided every decision, in the olden, golden days every conservative polishes into perfection the Founding Fathers supported the protection of slavery, the heinous crime of holding property in human beings. The U.S Constitution was riddled with compromises tied to slavery. We continue to celebrate this in many rah-rah type history books. What the framers compromised in those negotiations now called “great” included nothing less than the lives and liberty of human beings held in bondage. Our country didn’t get off to a very good start on that score. It burned slavery and all that follows from that inhuman institution into the fiber of this nation’s being.

The opportunity to turn in a direction away from racism as an unstated principle guiding the republic was lost in the failures of Reconstruction. During and after the Civil War, courageous African Americans worked and agitated for land, education and the vote–in that order of importance. We should all know what happened. The vote was grudgingly given but it was a naked token, easily withdrawn without the economic and intellectual underpinnings of the power of land and education. Frederick Douglass had it right when he noted that the engine of liberty was given without the fuel to run and sustain it. Racism, class and the sanctity of property trumped democratic beliefs and common humanity.

In the aftermath of the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election of 1876, another "compromise" settling the election effectively ended the timid reforms of the reconstruction era. The Republican Hayes was handed the presidency (a painful precursor to Florida 2000). What followed this election and so-called compromise were Jim Crow segregation laws, black disfranchisement, unbridled economic exploitation of poor white and black sharecroppers, and a ready tool to enforce these crimes, the terror of lynching.

African Americans, 90% living in the sunny south, did not vote again in great numbers until the New Deal era of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Democratic party at this time was two parties on race, tepid northern liberals and white supremacy southern segregationists. The Republicans were the staunch party of indifference in the north and don’t-change-a-thing lilly-white incrementalists in the south. But African Americans of the Great Migration living in the cities of the north, increasingly voted in support of the Democratic city machines in the same way immigrant groups voted machine politics at the turn of the twentieth century. With the Great Depression, and offered nothing more than bootstraps without the boots by the Republicans, black voters chose to move en masse into the Democratic party. They agreed with black newspaper editor Robert Vann who advised: Turn the picture of Abe Lincoln to the wall. That debt has been paid many times over. African Americans now chose to vote for the New Deal legislation that included crusts and crumbs for their families rather than the air and boosterism of rich Republicans.

And by the way, it hasn’t helped the Republicans with black voters to see Strom Thurmond and his brand of states rights fanatics turn Republican or Richard Nixon pushing the “Southern Strategy” (racism wrapped in legalisms) every chance he got in the south or Ronald Reagan kicking off his presidential campaign in front of a segregation forever audience in Mississippi or Bush II operatives playing their disfrancisment tricks on poor blacks in Florida.

And so African Americans, weighing their options, have remained in the Democratic Party. Times have changed but it seems that neither of the major parties has changed much in regard to race and class in this mostly free and mostly affluent land. Democrats over Republicans? It’s still a hold your nose bargain if your poor and black. It’s the only real offer on the political table.

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