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Published on January 7th, 2013

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When Black Meant Republican



It’s easy to forget now, but just a few generations ago African-Americans overwhelmingly identified themselves as Republicans. The story of how the Party of Lincoln lost its black support is long and sad, but understanding what happened is critical as the Party looks to improve its standing in the black community.

In the fall of 1895 Atlanta put on one in a series of “International Expositions” designed to highlight its progress in recovering from the war. Racial tensions had been growing since southerners, at the end of Reconstruction, began instituting Jim Crow laws to curtail black civil rights. Those laws were still under challenge at the time. African-Americans were divided over the merits of direct, legal resistance.

The organizers of the Exposition invited prominent black leader Booker T. Washington to give a keynote address. The position he took in that speech was a calculated gamble. He aimed to improve blacks’ social position by aggressively pursuing economic progress while de-emphasizing the battle for civil equality. The approach he outlined, The Atlanta Compromise, became the dominant black political ethos for generations. It was a dizzying failure with consequences we are still working to unwind.

Washington had a rival. W.E.B. DuBois was raised in the north and graduated from Harvard. He pressed to make the fight for political equality the community’s highest priority and dismissed Washington’s emphasis on economic development and Capitalism. DuBois founded the NAACP and became a leading figure in the northern cities. He was enamored with Marxism and even penned a defense of Josef Stalin on Stalin’s death. His influence would increase as Washington’s version of compromise began to unravel.

Washington’s approach suffered from two crucial flaws. First he thought that institutional southern racism would weaken as the black community began to realize its economic potential. Secondly, he failed to appreciate that capitalism cannot work its magic without government protection of basic property rights. In the face of these tragic misunderstandings, blacks labored away for decades building remarkably successful businesses, professions, and civic institutions, only to watch them crushed over and over again by discriminatory laws and outright violence. There was no hope for economic progress without the most basic civil rights.

A wave of race riots in the teens and ’20s were particularly devastating. Only a fraction of the incidents were documented at the time, usually in the form of a brief, euphemistic reference in a local paper to “troubles.” But postcards (that’s right, postcards), stories, and victim accounts painted a clearer picture. Two of the most notorious riots occurred in Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Prosperous black communities were in many cases wiped off the map, destroying generations of hard-won gains. When the Depression came, the brief flowering of the separate black communities was effectively dead.

By the ’50s, as America was bracing finally to confront its racist legacy, the gritty capitalism Washington had promoted was seen by blacks as a discredited failure at best, an “Uncle Tom” sell-out at worst. As Dr. King’s effort’s bore fruit and African-Americans began at last to have genuine economic freedom finally open to them, there was little enthusiasm to exploit it. Blacks who had led the successful fight for equal protection focused their continuing efforts less on free enterprise than on government social programs and poverty relief. At the moment when Booker T. Washington’s dream of individualism and enterprise held the most potential promise it was eclipsed by a very different vision.

This emphasis created an opening for Democrats which they successfully exploited. The drift of blacks away from the Republican Party was capped by a cynical effort to recruit disgruntled racist Democrats in the south.

What does this mean for Republicans? In spite of the failures of the Great Society era and with little help from Republicans, there is a vibrant, secure black middle class emerging for the first time in America. The growth of black prosperity will be a key to the country’s future, but it depends heavily on leaving behind a vision of government dependence with deep, well-justified roots.

We need to recognize this history to understand its impact on our future. Until a generation ago, accumulating capital across generations, so critical to climbing the ladder in America, was a complete fantasy for African-Americans in the south. They could reasonably expect that whatever wasn’t spent or hidden would be taken from them. This reality has left the black community with a starting point in terms of wealth, capital, and connections far behind whites or even other minorities.

In addition it would serve Republicans well to understand the difference between traditional black and white understandings of government power. For whites who look to European history as their guide, government is a necessary evil to be treated with great care. Its growth should be managed in order to prevent it becoming an interest to itself; capable of crushing personal liberty and economic freedom.

Blacks’ experience with government power is almost a polar opposite of whites’. When central government has been weak, they have suffered. This suffering is not merely relative, but has left them vulnerable to random acts of violence, humiliation, and looting. They have good reason to see government power as protection and to be suspicious of white efforts to weaken it.

A healthy Republican Party, with its crazy-dial turned down from the redline, could have a lot to offer African-Americans. But realizing the potential for black involvement in the Party will require us to better understand and honestly confront our own history. The GOP cannot hope to remain relevant if it devolves into a white religious club. Expanding our appeal is a moral and political imperative that can succeed if we have the will.

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Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area.  He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: chrladd AT gmail DOT com)

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5 Responses to When Black Meant Republican

  1. truevoice4real says:

    Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his autobiography:

    “The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism.”

    That was his description of the 1964 Republican National Convention. He also referred to the Republican convention as “the frenzied wedding at the Cow Palace of the KKK with the radical right.”

  2. Kiddie the Kid says:

    I’m a black republican for the exact same reasons that Washington was. Now that we have equal protection under the law we need to expose the weaknesses of our opponent (the dem’s) and we need to spread the word about their black genocide while maintaining the committment to traditional marriage, capitalism for all, reduced government spending, the right to keep and bear arms and we need to decry abortion and birth control. We have to stand firm on the core message while bringing light to the racism and hypocrisy that is engrained in the democrat party. When the dem’s say we need gun control we need to place emphasis on the murder rate of blacks via abortion which far exceeds the murder rate for violent crime in the black community and all communities. whenever democrats try to say we are intolerant we need to remind them of the intolerance that Christians experience at the hands of other religious groups and remind them that the atheists said at their 2012 conference that Christians deserve to be ridiculed.

  3. John says:

    Everything this article says is true. I would add, with respect to that which the GOP needs to do in order to attract more black and minority support, that the Republican Party is in need of a rhetorical makeover, and a willingness to embrace elements of its history the GOP has long since forgotten about. Free market and states rights rhetoric is well and good for white conservatives, and truth is in today’s era it would serve blacks well as well. But in another age, in fact in several, this sort of rhetoric was used to justify the worst offenses against us at the hands of white southerners. Let us not expect black people today to trust this same rhetoric coming out of the mouths of white southerners now. Yet if the Republican Party were to reclaim it’s history as the party of Lincoln, of Grant, of Eisenhower, of Dirkson, of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. a civil rights party…as opposed to just being the party of Ronald Reagan and small government conservatism, then it could begin to reach out.

  4. CG Booker says:

    In order for republicans to make any sort of stride in the african american community, it first has to acknowledge the unique history of the community to the federal government. Every major change, whether it was the emancipation proclamation, millitary desegregation in ww2, brown vs board of ed, federal troops escorting students to class ( little rock 9), the civil rights bill of 1964 – all have come by way of federal intervention and enforcement. The most prominent pathway to middle class status for african americansin the 1950’s and 60’s was through the Post Office – a federal institution. Republicans make the mistake of ignoring/discounting history (wrt racism in this country) and then couple it with arguments that the federal government is what’s wrong with this country, and you can see why although socially conservative, blacks overwhelmingly vote democrat.

    Secondly, much has been said about Team Obama’s ground game. In order to make inroads, republicans must, simply put, engage in urban warfare. It’s gotta be willing to go into the community and make the case, not just lob volleys over into the urban centers and hope to make a dent. The trend politically in this country is that the population centers will carry the most political power, and those centers are heavily populated by minorities. It can’t do a drive-by like Romney did in my old neighborhood in Philadelphia, it’s gotta setup shop and fight, block by block, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. I grew up in Philly in a predominately black, working class neighborhood; you can tell always tell the boundary line between the black and white neighborhoods by the political signs. If republicans are unwilling to bring the fight into these neighborhoods (ala Jack Kemp style), then they might as well get used to being lily-white and politically irrelevant in the 21st century.

  5. Bob says:

    The Republican Party is COLOR BLIND. We DO NOT see peoples race. If the blacks or Latinos want to be American and join the party they need to respect OUR WESTERN conservative values and quit complaining. Many WHITE people died so they can live in this country.

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