How Race Shaped American Party Politics

It's a given that the GOP attracts more whites and the Democrats attract more blacks, but it wasn't always so.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson was on target when he said in 1965 that with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Democrats had lost Southern white voters for a generation. He was off a bit and too optimistic. The loss has lasted longer than a generation, and the reason for it goes deep into our nation's history.

Since the 1860s, many whites in the Southern states have harbored a special, deep dislike for any of their brethren, anywhere on the continent, who took up the cause of former slaves. Think of the reactions to Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Ulysses S. Grant, Viola Liuzzo, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The civil rights movement jump-started a change in American politics that led to today's alignment of blacks voting heavily for Democrats and many whites supporting Republicans. It used to be the reverse -- after all, the GOP was the party of Lincoln, who signed the proclamation that freed African Americans from slavery. It was also the party of the black politicians of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

What happened? The switch in party loyalties, which happened in two stages, was based purely on racism.  

At a conference I covered in Louisville, Ky., on school integration in 1976, a Southern white attorney who was an unwavering supporter of desegregation stunned the audience by declaring flatly that the problem they were having integrating the schools was simply, "White folks don't like niggers." 

I accepted that observation from such an expert, since it complemented the above-mentioned statement by Johnson about the Democrats losing Southern white voters. It's a dynamic you can trace back to slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the interminable, unceasing fight against civil rights and whatever was proposed to assist blacks from their consignment to the basement of the American economic, social and political structure.    

Eroding Rights

When Abraham Lincoln's Republicans gave ex-slaves access to the ballot, Southerners' war against those rights was on. Bit by bit, during the Reconstruction period and throughout the 19th century, they chipped away at blacks' newly gained rights.

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Over time, the GOP came to concur with the erosion of those rights and allowed Southern whites to take back control of the region from Union troops, to the detriment of African Americans. Southern Democrats remained unwavering in their opposition to black enfranchisement as they became powerful once again in Congress and, eventually, in the presidency.