The Lincoln Legacy

Barack Obama’s choice of Springfield, IL, home of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, to introduce us to his vice president raises a question I was recently asked by my 12-year-old. Mulling over his fairly considerable knowledge of American history, my seventh grader wanted to know “When did the Republicans become the bad guys?” Good Question.

Republicans were the force for morality and integrity for their first hundred years. They abolished slavery, saved the union, busted trusts, instituted a system of government regulation of food and drugs. It was a court led by Republican appointed judges that gave black citizens equal rights to education, and it was Republican appointed southern judges who supported the civil rights struggle in its early, and darkest years. So when did they become the bad guys?

You can almost set the date. In October, 1960, Martin Luther King was sentenced to four months of hard labor at Georgia’s notorious Reidsville State Prison after being arrested on a trumped up traffic warrant and for violating probation on a conviction for a civil rights demonstration. Reidsville was a dangerous place for any black man, particularly dangerous for MLK. His family was extremely worried about his fate. On October 26, John Kennedy, urged on by Sargeant Shriver and Harris Wofford, the liberals in his campaign, called Coretta King and wished her well. In 1960, the South was still called the “Solid South,” a phrase defining southern loyalty to the Democratic Party’s luke warm attitude toward abolition in 1860, and solid support for Jim Crow in later years. The phone call was strongly opposed by Bobby Kennedy. (The truth is most Americans didn’t have a real problem with Jim Crow. Whites routinely turned a blind eye to lynching and similar depredations against the Black population of the south, and even the best figured “separate but equal” was OK.) 

Bobby thought they would lose several southern states if word of the phone call got out.  The phone call was enough to swing the black voting population away from a century of Republican loyalty into the Democratic column. Kennedy became the first Democrat in history to carry the black vote. Curiously, during his presidency, he did little to support the civil rights movement. He believed the freedom riders, for example, were stirring up unnecessary trouble.  It is likely that if there had not been prominent white liberals risking their lives on those busses, there would have been no FBI intervention at all. Kennedy did recognize the value of black votes, and put some support behind voter registration efforts in the south. The real champion of civil rights in the Democratic party was Lyndon Johnson, who used his knowledge of the Senate, and his power as a southern president, to get the Voting Rights Act passed in 1964.

In 1968, when George Wallace, running under the American Independent Party banner, carried five Southern states, Noxin’s Southern Strategy was born. Noxin called on the “silent majority” of white people, who were not certain they really wanted to sit down at a lunch counter with black people, to get on his bandwagon. The 1976 election was the last in which the “Solid South” voted for a Democrat. Jimmy Carter carried the south because he was a native, and because it would never have occurred to Jerry Ford to play the race card. The Traitor to his Nation Ronnie Raygun articulated a program of racist jingoism that resonated easily with Southern Culture, and moved the South out of the Democratic column permanently. By the end of Raygun’s reign, the Republican Party was no more. In its place was an immoral, unprincipled, power mad Confederacy of Scumballs sometimes called the Republigoats, Bullshitters, Grand Oil Party, which sees both racism and treason as the path to power.

Of course, we should not be sad to see the racists and warmongers leave the Democratic Party. Our history is besmirched by our Copperhead legacy, saved only by the Progressive sensibilities of heroes like Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman (who desegregated the military) and Hubert Humphrey, who split the party in 1948 by successfully attaching a civil rights plank to the party platform.

Our party history now embraces Martin Luther King, Shirley Chisolm, Jesse Jackson, Fannie Hamer, Andrew Young and a legion of great black leaders. We are about to nominate the first black candidate for the Presidency. It is only fitting that we claim the mantle of the Party of Lincoln for our own.

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