This series was inspired by the following question heard all throughout the Black Community from the blogosphere to the barber shop: "How in the hell could a Black person ever vote Republican?!?!?"
Although, lately, many of us here at The Urban Politico may have been guilty of wondering the same thing (don't act like it's just us) we decided to go beyond the hype and take a deeper look at the connection between the Republican Party and the Black Community. We wanted to know why 4% of the Black Community felt so passionately about a political party that they would risk voting against the first (and for all we know, perhaps the last) Black President in United States history. We wanted to know how people as night and day as Colin Powell and Michael Steele seem to be can possibly belong to the same club. And most importantly, we wanted to know how it all started. So over these next few weeks in April, in honor of our Book of the Month, we're about to get down to the bottom of all this Black Republicanism, and we warn you in advance: the answers may shock you!
Since this is the first part of the series we figured it is only appropriate to start at the beginning. As it turns out, when the Republican Party started back in 1854, the question we would have all been asking ourselves back then is "how in the hell could a Black person ever vote Democratic?!" Although it may be hard for some of you to picture by today's standards, did you know that the Democratic Party, which had been around for about 60 years by the time the Republicans got their start, was effectively the pro-slavery party?
The Democrats, who are the oldest political party still in existence in America, got their start back in 1792 just 3 years after the country was founded. Back then they were officially known as the "Democratic-Republican Party." The first Democratic president was the 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, in 1800. They officially shortened the party title to just the "Democratic" party in 1829 with the election of the 7th President, Andrew Jackson. The Democrats believed in "State's Rights," small Federal Government, free trade, and they were strongly concentrated in the South, weak in the Northeast, and referred to the Northeasterners as "elites." Sound familiar to anyone?
In 1854, when the Republicans first started, America still had slavery. It was the hot-button issue of the times. Picture it as the Health Care debate of its day. Many people were split on the issue, including the Democrats; some were vehemently for and some were vehemently against. Then something happened - the geniuses in Congress (they still sucked even back then) passed the Kansas-Nebrask Act of 1854 which finally pissed the anti-slavery folks off to the point where they started their own party, kind of like today's Tea Party crowd except nobody had Nazi signs. In a nutshell, the Act expanded slavery into the new territories. There were a number of anti-slavery groups around at that time (The Free Soil Party, the Whig Party, and even a number of members of the Democratic Party) but the Kansas-Nebraska Act pushed them all over the edge. Nothing like a little Congressional legislation to drive people crazy right? So all of those anti-slavery groups got together and formed a brand new party - the Republican Party. The party's first President was none other than the 16th President, Mr. Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party stood for (are you sitting down for this?) big Federal Government to protect the people, anti-state's rights, pro-tariffs, anti-free trade and anti-slavery.
THE BLACK COMMUNITY'S GRAND OPENING
As you can imagine, Black folks were too thrilled upon hearing about the creation of the Republican Party. And why not? A political party actually standing up for the rights of slaves? Unheard of. After the Civil War ended and the United States (aka "The Union") defeated the South, the Republican Party took over both the House and the Senate, created the following Reconstruction legislation and, as Mitch McConnell would say, "crammed it down the throats of the American people:"
- 13th Amendment - Ended slavery in the U.S. (Black people are now free)
- 14th Amendment - Prevented States from denying rights to the people (Black people now have equal treatment under the law and protection from states)
- 15th Amendment - Outlawed any racial restrictions on the Right to Vote (Black people can now vote)
THE BLACK COMMUNITY'S GRAND CLOSING
It didn't take long for the romance between the Black Community and the Republican Party to wear off, or perhaps a better way of stating it is that it wasn't long before the true colors of the Republican Party began to show. Much like the time when you dated that one boy/girl who turned out to be crazy, the signs were always there regarding the Republican Party's true intentions but the Black Community was just too in love to see them. For example, although it is true that the Republican Party was formed in reaction to slavery, many of its members in the late 1800's felt there was a significant difference between (A) ending slavery and (B) giving Blacks legal rights. A good portion of the Republican membership believed that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that came out in 1896 matched their own personal views on race - that is to say that Black people could be equal...just so long as they were equal over there some place away from Whites. Indeed, even Abraham Lincoln, who was known to the Black community as the man who freed the slaves, had this to say:
"I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people. I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race. I say upon this occasion, I do not perceive that because the White man is to have the superior position the Negro should be denied everything. I do not understand [why people think] that [just] because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave [that] I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone." - Then U.S. Senate Candidate for Illinois, Republican Abraham Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858Needless to say, the writing was on the wall. After the Civil War ended and the Republican Party shifted its focus from the War to maintaining its own political power, the Democrats, who were not exactly thrilled by all the new Black members of Congress, saw an opening; they couldn't stop Blacks from voting on account of race due to the 15th Amendment, but what they could do is stop Blacks from voting who couldn't read, or who didn't own property, or for any number of other "non-racial" reasons. Thus, poll taxes and literacy tests sprang up like wildfire all throughout the South and before you knew it, states like Mississippi went from 130,000 registered Black voters to just under 6,000. Eventually Black Republicans lost all of their seats in the House and the Senate and were right back to square one.
The final nail in the coffin came in 1877 through the Hayes-Tilden Compromise that settled the hotly contested 1876 Presidential Election. In order to prevent another Civil War from breaking out, Democratic presidential candidate Samuel Tilden agreed to concede the too-close-to-call election to Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes if Hayes agreed (which he did) to withdraw all of the Federal Troops stationed in the South. For the Democrats, it was worth giving up the Presidency for 4 years to reclaim the South. When the Federal Troops left, so did the Republicans. This left the Black Community out in the cold with literally no protection from the Southern Democrats and other groups like the Ku Klux Klan who immediately went to work creating the Jim Crow South that we all know and love.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the cliff notes version of how the Black Community got its start with the Republican Party. A few extra-credit questions that emerge from this time period are:
Were the Republicans ever truly down for Black people in the beginning?
For you Black Republicans out there, were you aware of and/or are you proud of your party's history with the Black Community?
For you Black Democrats out there, were you aware of and/or are you proud of your party's history with the Black Community?
If Frederick Douglas were alive today, would he be a Republican?
Click here to go to Part 2 of the Series.
Click here to go to Part 3 of the Series.