Reference Entry

Political Parties and Civil Rights.

Glenn McNair

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Political Parties and Civil Rights.

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Civil rights have been a critical, often defining, issue for the Republican and Democratic parties. Party positions on civil rights from 1896 to 1936 were products of the racial politics of Reconstruction. The Republican Party had enacted the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—granting citizenship and voting rights to blacks—because it needed black votes to ensure political control in the South. Consequently the white, southern Democratic Party—supported by its northern wing—opposed black civil rights. Political scandals, economic downturns, and northern fatigue weakened the Republican Party's commitment to Reconstruction, and by 1875 the Democratic Party had regained control of most southern state governments. Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877: after the very close and disputed presidential election of 1876, southerners and Democrats agreed to acknowledge the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president with the understanding that federal troops would be removed from the South.The southern Democratic Party sought to guarantee its political and racial dominance by disfranchising blacks politically and segregating them socially. Through violence and law whites succeeded in disfranchising most southern blacks by the late 1890s, and the U.S. Supreme Court legitimated Jim Crow segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Southern Republicans hoped to remain politically viable by purging the party of its black majority. Nationally the party tried to retain blacks’ votes through symbolic support of the Reconstruction Amendments. By not taking executive or legislative action on civil rights the party expected to gain white voters.Through the 1930s, civil rights activists fought to end to disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching. The Republican Party regularly affirmed its commitment to black citizenship rights and its opposition to racial violence, but it did not act. The Dyer Antilynching Bill, introduced by the Republican congressman L. C. Dyer in 1918, was the single notable exception. The bill passed in the House in 1922 but was defeated in the Senate, as was similar legislation though the 1930s. The Democratic Party maintained its hostility to civil rights, promoting what it called states’ rights, or noninterference in regional affairs.Disillusioned with the Republicans and economically benefited by the New Deal, in 1936 blacks shifted their allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. Black political power had increased significantly as a result of the Great Migration. Northern Democratic political machines actively sought these new black votes, which were critical in the ascendant class-based New Deal Democratic coalition of southern whites, northern urban workers, members of white ethnic groups, labor unionists, and western farmers. Despite the importance of the black vote, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put forth no substantive measures on civil rights during the 1930s because he feared alienating the powerful southern Democrats in Congress.Black advances during World War II compelled the parties to take civil rights seriously. Black protest during the war forced Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industries, which accelerated the Great Migration, making black votes more critical in presidential elections. Black union membership climbed to more than two hundred thousand, strengthening the Democratic coalition. This enhanced black political power evidenced itself in the presidential election of 1948. To secure the vital black vote the Democrat Harry Truman sponsored a strong civil rights party platform that promised antilynching legislation, desegregation of the military, and an end to disfranchisement. Southern Democrats, led by the segregationist South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, formed the States’ Rights Party, better known as the Dixiecrat Party, to oppose Truman's agenda. Truman narrowly defeated the Republican Thomas Dewey, but the Dixiecrat challenge exposed the racial fault line in the Democratic coalition. Truman desegregated the military but did nothing more on civil rights.The modern civil rights movement began in earnest during the presidential administrations of the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like most moderate Republicans, Eisenhower was in favor of blacks enjoying the civil rights guaranteed by the Reconstruction Amendments, particularly voting rights, but he did not support forced desegregation and federal intervention in state affairs. Accordingly, Eisenhower supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created both the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and a commission to investigate violations of black civil and voting rights. The act accomplished little because of weak enforcement provisions. In the same year Eisenhower reluctantly sent federal troops to Little Rock's Central High School to enforce a federal court's desegregation order.In the early 1960s the Democratic president John F. Kennedy tried to hold together his party's fragile coalition by taking action only when civil rights protests resulted in large-scale violence. Kennedy had to act because escalating levels of violence threatened national morale and order and provided excellent propaganda for the Soviet Union, America's Cold War enemy. After the highly publicized violence associated with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham campaign in 1963, Kennedy proposed the most sweeping civil rights bill in American history.After Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, shepherded the legislation through Congress with the bipartisan support of northern liberals, against the opposition of southerners of both parties. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred segregation and discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. In 1965 Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed legal disfranchisement. Southern Democrats began to shift their loyalty to the Republican Party—Strom Thurmond, for example, became a Republican in 1964.Blacks realized that the equality of opportunity guaranteed by civil rights legislation did not sufficiently improve their lives and began to agitate for more activist government. During the 1960s and 1970s civil rights activists supported Johnson's “Great Society”: welfare programs, busing, minority set-asides, and affirmative action. This insistence on equality of results over equality of opportunity, along with the rise of Black Power militancy and urban rioting, caused a white backlash against civil rights. Conservative Republicans expanded their ranks by appealing to disaffected whites—especially southerners—with a message of law, order, traditional values, and limited government. This strategy led to Richard Nixon's election as president in 1968 and 1972.Since the 1970s the partisan divide over civil rights and other social issues has grown. The Democratic Party has lost to the Republicans the more conservative elements of its coalition—white southerners, northern members of ethnic groups, and western farmers—leading to a national Republican majority until 2006. Republicans have defined civil rights as equality of opportunity and the ability to exercise the rights of citizenship. Affirmative action has been the central issue of contention, and Republicans have succeeded in limiting it, in keeping with their conservative vision.

Reference Entry.  1228 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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