It’s no political secret that African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Democrats routinely see between 85-90% of the Black community vote in their favor. In a country that so highly prizes Democracy, one is left to wonder why there is such a disproportionate number of Blacks that align themselves with only one political party? Surely the very notion of Democracy implies that citizens are free to choose their political affiliations. With such skewed numbers, is it possible that African-Americans are politically homogenous beings incapable of independent thought? History would suggest not. There was a time when Blacks were completely Republican. There was a time when Blacks were legally prohibited from participating in the Democratic party. How then did such a drastic change occur? What prompted this mass political exodus? This article will shed light on the above questions and challenge some widely held beliefs about Black political party identity.
Following the Civil War, a series of congressional amendments were passed that sought to level the social and political playing field. They are popularly referred to as the “Reconstruction Amendments”. The 13th amendment “ended” slavery, the 14th amendment granted citizenship to Blacks, and the 15th amendment gave African-American men the right to vote. It should be noted that women(of any color) didn’t receive that same right until 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment. As you may imagine, southerners(as well as a few northerners) were vehemently against this policy that extended Black men the right to vote. Even noted advocates of women’s rights such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were incensed at the concept that Black men were given the right to vote before White women. The south was a largely agrarian(agricultural) based economy that was controlled by conservative Democrats. While the term “Conservative Democrats”(known as Blue Dog Democrats today) may seem oxymoronic by today’s standards, post Civil War America was overwhelmingly democratic and conservative in southern states. This is further evidenced by the south’s strong reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln, the country’s first Republican President. Southern Democrats saw Lincoln and the Republican Party as literally taking the food out of their mouths by extending the rights of citizenship and political equality to their former slaves. With the majority of African-Americans still residing in the south, Democrats feared for the stability of their economy. Hence, from the late 1860s through the early 20th century, Blacks exclusively identified and tied their cultural ambitions to the Republican Party. So ingrained was this prejudice against Blacks that the Democratic Party didn’t formally allow Blacks in its ranks until 1924. In 1924, Blacks were allowed to attend Democratic Conventions for the first time. Though they were allowed to attend conventions, Blacks still identified heavily with the Republican Party. After all, it was this party who was responsible for their coveted freedom and liberties not the Democrats.
Industrialization and The Great Migration
Amidst a national change from an agrarian economy to a factory based industrial economy, the early 20th century saw a myriad of changes taking place in America. Prior to American Industrialization, 80% of African-Americans will live in the rural south. However, during this new and exciting chapter in American history that same population will being to migrate to northern cities to escape the brutality of the south and seek better opportunities. As factories started to appear, Blacks began moving north with greater aspirations of financial stability for their families. Now that they were not free labor or exploited workers in the tenant farming system(sharecroppers), they began to focus on issues of economic welfare as many of their fellow Americans had been doing for so long. These economic concerns multiplied exponentially after World War I, The Stock Market Crash of 1929, and The Great Depression. The industrial north which had once been likened to the biblical “Canaan” by black migrants had now become a financially strapped wasteland devoid of the opportunities that lured them there initially.
FDR, The New Deal, and The 1936-1944 Presidential Elections
In the 1936 presidential election, Franklin D. Roosevelt would run on a new platform that emphasized a massive increase in government spending and support for the creation of programs designed to jumpstart American confidence in a failing economy. He called this catalyst “The New Deal”. African-American community leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune felt for the “first time in their history” that Blacks could voice their grievances to the government with the “expectancy of sympathetic understanding and interpretation”. Despite good intentions, the New Deal did not eliminate segregation, the rampant discrimination in employment, wages, or working conditions that had plagued African-Americans for the last decade. Government agencies like the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration, and the Public Works Administration did increase the number of Blacks working. However, the New Deal was also responsible for a great number of job losses in the Black community as well. Because of the increasing regulations placed on employers, many Blacks who fell into the category of “unskilled workers” lost their jobs. Unskilled and marginal workers like many Blacks, had difficulty finding work because of increasing taxes. FDR tripled federal taxes between 1933-1940 and social security excise taxes on payrolls actively discouraged employers from hiring. New Deal spending also funneled money into several western and eastern states where previous election returns were known to be close. This would leave southern Blacks out of the reach of much of the New Deal’s spending. While not aimed at or particularly effective for Blacks, the New Deal provided a ray of light in the darkness of American despair. In the 1936 election, Roosevelt would receive 71% of the Black vote and nearly that amount in 1940 and 1944 as well. The irony here lies in the fact that despite receiving a large majority of the Black vote, Blacks still didn’t formerly affiliate with the Democratic party in large numbers. Between 1936-1944 less than 44% of Blacks identified themselves as “Democratic”. They may have voted for FDR based on the New Deal but had clearly not forgotten the tainted legacy of the Democratic Party to which he belonged.
Harry S. Truman and the 1948 Presidential Election
The next major shift in Black political party identification occurred during the 1948 presidential election. Harry S. Truman(Democrat) was elected president and would take home over 77% of the Black vote. This can be largely attributed to Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces and the issuance of an executive order setting up regulations against racial basis in federal employment. Despite these noble efforts, it is worth mentioning that Truman had a less than stellar view of ethnic minorities. He used ethnic slurs when referring to Jews and Italians and was known to belong to a Missouri chapter of the KKK between the years of 1920-1922. His brief association with the KKK came to an end over his desire to appoint Roman Catholics to key political positions something the klan was firmly against. Truman was currying favor amongst Catholic voters and could not afford to isolate this voting base. He would spend years denying these accusations of Klan affiliation. His Civil Rights oriented decisions appear to be more politically motivated than a reflection of his personal affinities(or disdain as the case appears) for Blacks. However, these two major policies also gave for the first time a majority(over 50%) of Blacks that began to see themselves politically and formally as Democrats. It is important to remember that despite 12 years of substantial Black support up to this point, there were still a sizeable number of African-Americans who formally associated with the Republican party.
President Eisenhower and the Presidential Elections of 1952 and 1956
The election of 1952 saw Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower assume the Presidency and put Republicans back in control of the White House. “Ike” as he was affectionately called was not known for progressive views when it came to Civil Rights. On the issue, he preferred a more quiet and constitutional approach that would avoid violent disruption in the south. This should not be misunderstood as neglect or apathy on his part. President Eisenhower achieved several notable accomplishments regarding Civil Rights that have gone largely ignored such as: 1) The appointment of California Governor Earl Warren as the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court(who lead a unanimous decision in the landmark public school desegregation case Brown vs Board of Education in 1954), 2) the careful and consistent appointment of southern districts federal judges who were committed to equal rights, 3) the eventual passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act along with additional Voting Rights legislation in 1960( a precursor to 1960s Civil Rights Legislation), 4) the implementation of former Pres. Truman’s 1948 desegregation order, 5) the deployment of elements of the 101st Airborne Division to protect Black students at all-white Little Rock Central High school, 6) the first president to elevate an African-American to an executive level position in the White House, and 7) being the first president since Reconstruction to meet personally in the White House with black civil rights leaders. Because of these actions, he was able to take roughly 23-25% of the Black vote in 1952 and 39-40% of the Black vote in 1956. In holding with the 1948 election, the majority of Black voters still saw themselves as Democratic. These numbers, especially the 1956 election, show a noticeable decline for Democrats and a fairly substantial increase for Republicans(that has still not been matched today). Once again, many African-Americans saw themselves politically as Democrats though still not in proportion to the amount that actually voted Democratic.
Kennedy vs. Nixon and the 1960 Presidential Election
The election of 1960 saw America’s darling John F. Kennedy take on Richard M. Nixon. Despite JFK’s liberal inclinations he would only take 68% of the black vote. This is only a modest increase from the Democratic performance in 1956. Richard Nixon would take 32% of the Black vote despite some questionable views on the poor and ethnic minorities. I attribute this modest increase by Democrats to JFK’s decision to put Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson on his running ticket. Up to this point, LBJ(from Texas and a devoted southerner) had consistently shot down Civil Rights legislation. This would definitely explain the public outcry by civil rights activists over Kennedy’s Vice Presidential selection. The 32% garnered by Nixon is undoubtedly the residual effects from the Eisenhower presidency whom many African-Americans looked on favorably(including my Grandfather). President Kennedy would win the election narrowly carrying 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5%. Nixon won 26 states while Kennedy won 24 states. The final electoral tally was Kennedy 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219 votes. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson was thrust into the presidency only to run a short time later in the 1964 election against Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. The 1964 Presidential election would be a defining moment in American politics and the turning point in African-American voting patterns.
Goldwater vs. Johnson and the 1964 Presidential Election
The Presidential election of 1964 was perhaps most the most defining moment in American politics. It marks the mass shifting by African-Americans to the Democratic party. Lyndon B. Jonson would win the election with an overwhelming 94% of the Black vote with Goldwater carrying a paltry 6%. The reasons for this drubbing are numerous and somewhat complex. The mid 60s was a turbulent time in American history wrought with massive wide-scale protest and resistance. The eyes of the world were on this great democracy who at eyesight appeared not to fully extend the blessings of liberty to all of her citizens. Blacks had actively voiced their dissent and were demanding equality. Despite helping to bury the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, LBJ would push the 1964 Civil Rights Act through congress as well as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These two monumental pieces of legislation permanently endeared Black voters to both Johnson and the Democratic party. His opponent Barry Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This was no doubt an influential factor in the decision-making process of many African-American voters. His opposition signaled an air of bigotry and racism to Black voters. After 1965, no republican candidate(even today) has received more than 15% of the Black vote. However, to generalize Goldwater as a racist would be misleading. His opposition to the bill is rooted in his staunch constitutionalist approach to politics. He believed in a strict interpretation of the constitution and believed that two of its sections, Title II and Title VII, unlawfully overextended the role of the federal government. He saw this as the federal government infringing on the rights of states to govern themselves as given in the constitution. It is noteworthy that Goldwater supported the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts(though critics say these were substantially weaker versions of the 1964 Act). Goldwater would later come to regret his vote and his previous accomplishments regarding Civil Rights would go largely unnoticed. For example, Goldwater was successful in helping to integrate the Arizona National Guard before Truman’s 1948 order to desegregate the Armed Forces. Before he was a public official, he helped to integrate his family’s business and while a City Councilman he was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP where he remained a member until his death. For African-Americans, however, the 1964 election was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Their decades long allegiance to the Republican party was over and Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” program(a reform program aimed at eliminating poverty and increasing prosperity for all) stood as a new symbol for the hopes and dreams of Blacks. Johnson, however, had little interest in the social welfare of Blacks and more interest in calculated politics.
Thoughts on Lyndon B. Johnson
As stated earlier, LBJ had a long track record of voting against Civil Rights legislation. As a senator, he helped to bury the 1957 Civil Rights Act by assigning it to the Judiciary Sub-Committee on Civil Rights headed by the most virulent racist in the Senate James Eastland( Democrat from Mississippi). Eastland was not a great orator and preferred to work behind the scenes supporting plantation owners, becoming a symbol of massive southern resistance to racial integration, and sullying the reputation of Civil Rights supporters. Sen. Johnson worked diligently to endear himself to his congressional southern comrades and even spoke against former President Truman’s Civil Rights endeavors as well. It has to be said that Johnson was a cold and calculating politician that spoke publicly in favor of Civil Rights during the 1960s but was privately known to use the accursed “N” word. According to Randall Bennett, author of “LBJ: Architect of American Ambition”, he notes that Harry McPherson(Counsel and Special Counsel to Johnson from 1965-1969 and Johnson’s Chief Speechwriter from 1966-1969) comments on LBJ saying, “And about 5 minutes later I heard(LBJ) say to some southerner…I’m going to have to bring up the n***er bill again”. This is an obvious reference to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Robert Dallek( a historian focusing on U.S. Presidents and former Professor at Boston University, Columbia University, UCLA, and Oxford) also notes in his book “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and his times 1908-1960” one of Johnson’s more infamous comments, “Son, when I appoint a n***er to the court, I want everyone to know he’s a n***er”. Now as shocking as these statements maybe, there are numerous acquaintances and accounts of Johnson’s use of the “N” word to describe Blacks. Racial insensitivity, however, was not his only character flaw. He openly carried on sordid affairs on his wife LadyBird and was known for his vulgarity and love of profanity. Being from old school Texas this may not be a stretch for some(author included) to believe that he indeed incorporated the “N” word into his vocabulary. It would appear that LBJ, as most politicians, worked in the interest of political expediency rather than any deep-rooted compassion he felt for Blacks or the poor. Perhaps the most telling quote attributed to him is given in Ronald Kessler’s(An American Journalist with over 19 non-fiction books penned and the Chief Correspondent of the conservative news and commentary website newsmax.com) “Inside the White House” where Johnson was reported to have said, “I’ll have these n***ers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years”.
Whether one believes he said these things or not, two things are painfully apparent: 1) he had indeed used the “N” word before and that was no big secret 2) since his Civil Rights Legislation passed African-Americans have overwhelmingly voted Democratic and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. The irony in the shift to the Democratic party for Blacks lies in the fact that we as a community have placed our faith in Democratic politicians who behind closed doors have not had our best interest in mind. We voted against candidates we believed to be racist and against Republicans we assumed to be prejudiced(and some very well may have been) in favor of ones who helped pass Civil Rights Legislation while privately cursing the Black community. So please think twice before you pigeonhole all Republicans as racists. A simple examination into the history of the Democratic party may prove surprising and enlightening.
Peace and Blessings from Dathistoryguy!