Review: David Barton’s Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White, Part One

I just finished reading David Barton’s Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White. In this book, Barton attempts to demonstrate that the Republican party has historically been the party of civil rights while the Democrats have worked to prevent full equality for African Americans. As with other claims made by Barton, this claim has some truth to it. Democrats, especially southern Democrats worked against Reconstruction era reforms while certain Republicans advocated for full civil rights based on the Declaration of Independence. However, my impression is that Barton skews the history in several ways to give less than a complete and accurate picture of the period of time he covers (from pre-Civil War to the 1960s).

Thus far, I can identify three major problems with Barton’s narrative. One, he fails to make clear the divisions within the Republican party over Reconstruction and civil rights. Throughout the Reconstruction era, moderate and radical Republicans debated how far to go in granting civil rights to freed blacks. However, Barton’s narrative is clearly Democrat versus Republican. Barton mentions Plessy v. Ferguson as an adverse decision for blacks but fails to mention that most of the Justices who decided that case were either Republican or appointed by Republican presidents.

Two, Barton fails to consider the role of the Christian church in the southern resistance to civil rights. The Confederate constitution invoked God and many post Civil War opponents of equality embedded their arguments in the Bible. Barton makes the southern resistance to civil rights for blacks into a political issue without dealing with the religious justifications for segregation.

Three, Barton fails to even mention the 1964 presidential campaign and Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act as turning points in black voting behavior. Prior to the Goldwater campaign, Republican presidents had received significant support from African Americans. For instance, Eisenhower received 39% of the black vote in 1956 and Nixon got 32% in 1960. In 1964, when Goldwater ran for president, only 6% of the black vote went Republican. Although Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman began the change of trend in voting, Goldwater’s lack of support for the Civil Rights Act and the reaction of black leaders — including Martin Luther King — were crucial factors in solidifying black support for the democrats.

This clip summarizes the history nicely:

Note at 4:03 into this clip, Martin Luther King, Jr. urged everyone to vote against Goldwater. Apparently many black leaders did not believe Goldwater was personally racist but the policies adopted by Goldwater and other Republicans at the time were of great importance. Barton completely omits these events.

For a good description of Reconstruction and beyond, I can’t recommend Barton’s book. I am currently reading Concerning a New Republic: The Republican Part and Southern Question, 1869-1900 by Charles Calhoun which is thus far a much better treatment of the facts than Setting the Record Straight. In upcoming posts, I hope to add some depth to these initial observations.

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  • Carol A Ranney

    Barton needs to take a look at this year’s RNC. Monochromatic white except for the CNN camerawoman at whom a couple men threw peanuts while shouting, “This is how we feed monkeys!” At least i give the RNC credit for throwing them out.

  • Nick


    You make a good point noting Goldwater and the ’64 election. I’d take that a step further, to the ’68 election. Both John Lindsey (mayor of NYC) and Nelson Rockefeller (gov of NY) were both considered liberal Republicans concerned with social issues, particularly race. However, when Nixon passed both of them over for the VP slot in favor of Spiro Agnew ( man with renowned racist tendencies), blacks fled the party. As noted by Mark Kurlansky, in 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, “Most of the 78 black delegates to the Miami convention…went home either unwilling or unable to back the ticket.” Moreover, Jackie Robinson–who had been, up to that point, a GOP supporter–immediately walked and began working with the Democrats to defeat Nixon/Agnew.

  • Nick – Good points. I may pick up on those observations in a future post.

  • What’s new about a conservative “scholar”‘ or “historian” putting out a book that omits or glosses over the ’64 elections and the Dixiecrats?

  • Jeff – It is what we have come to expect, but lots of people buy it.

  • Historianess

    One might also look at the Election of 1948. The *Democratic* Party added Civil Rights to its platform that year, with Truman’s support. Strom Thurmond (Southern Democrat) walked out of the convention and then ran for President as a States’ Rights Party candidate. This was the beginning of the end of the traditional “Southern Democrats.” By the late 1960s, Nixon had implemented what we now call the Southern Strategy to take advantage of this growing split in the Democratic Party. This is why we now have the solidly Republican South–and why Strom Thurmond died a Republican.

    I generally think the whole conversation that takes place on the right about Democrats, Republicans, and Civil Rights misses the main point of a two-party system. That is, parties try to outperform one another in certain areas of the country by appropriating issues that the other party has been stronger on. In this case, Democrats realized that the tide was turning on Civil Rights, they adopted it as their issue, and in the process won the black vote and lost the Southern white vote. It’s a complicated story, and one that David Barton cannot do justice to since his agenda is ideological rather than historical.

    (Incidentally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by a…Southern Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, who at the time noted that that legislation would lose the South for Democrats for two generations. It turns out he was probably right, since the South is only now starting to vote for Democrats again–see VA and NC going for Obama in 2008).

  • Historianess – Excellent.

  • Christian Lawyer

    Warren —

    I’ve been lurking here and following your great work debunking David Barton. It’s no surprise that his purported history of civil rights skips over anything that might disprove his thesis. I’ve ordered a (used) copy of Setting the Record Straight and of his Original Intent. I’ll be interested in your further thoughts. I’m also looking into his many claims about various legal cases and legal issues, which are just as error-ridden as his claims about Jefferson and the other Founders.

    One other thing that I think he overlooks on the civil rights history is the decade between the Brown decision in 1954, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, years of endless litigation, riots, southern intransigence, and federal disinterest. I didn’t start elementary school until the fall of 1965, but in my segregated South Florida small town, schools weren’t integrated until my 7th grade year in the fall of 1971. I had never before met a black person to speak to.

    Your post made me dig up my copy of an excellent book I read in college (late 70’s), “Fifty-Eight Lonely Men,” by JW Peltason, prof. of Political Science at Univ. of Illinois and later president of Univ. of California, written in 1961. My copy is of the 1970 version that includes an epilogue and a detailed bibliographic essay for further research. The 58 men were the southern federal judges, 48 at the trial court level and 10 appellate judges, including Democrats and Republicans, before whom the NAACP litigated the desegregation cases after Brown. Although written by a political scientist, it mostly avoids partisan politics and refers instead to the groups as “segregationists,” “integrationists,” “southern moderates,” etc. It is organized around the efforts in various southern states to fight for, or against, desegration, including role (if any) of the federal government. By the end of 1960, when the main part of the book concludes, little progress had been made and while the book is mostly about the federal judges, it also asserts that “southern moderates” believed Pres. Eisenhower had let them down. It’s a gripping account, written in the midst of frustrating times. Even after all these years, I would still highly recommend it.

    By the end of 1960 “[i]n the rural South, no school integration is in sight. Here the [African-Americans]** is still economically depressed; he has no vote, and the white community is opposed to even symbolic integration. Federal judges handling suits concerning rural communities are likely to find reasons why no integration injunction should be issued. Even if they order desegregation, orders are not likely to bring it about.” (p.250)

    Although Pres. Eisenhower’s nationalization of the guard troops in Little Rock in 1957 was dramatic, and let the black students attend Central High in the 1957-58 school year, the US Attorney General resigned shortly thereafter and Eisenhower replaced him with someone who refused to prosecute the whites who had organized and led the riots. This was true in many instances other instances around the country. pp. 51-53) Some local school boards that were trying to comply with Brown had to beg the US DOJ to intervene to stop the violence and rioting. One letter in 1956 out of Tennessee, where there had been mob riots and the national guard brought in, which would be funny if it weren’t so heartbreakingly sad, questioned the DOJ: “For the authorities of the federal government … [to] take the position that the carrying out of such an order [from the federal judge] is a ‘local problem’ would seem to be the height of absurdity…. The local F.B.I. agents and U.S. District Attorney’s officers spend considerable time in this country tracking down moonshiners … but for some unexplained reason are oblivious to the internationally known Clinton [Tenn.] integration problem.” (p. 51-52)

    The year after Eisenhower sent the federal toops to Little Rock, the school board petitioned the federal court that they be permitted to delay desegregation for another two and a half years. Eisenhower had long refused to state his position on the Brown decision and when in 1958 the new Little Rock case was before the Supreme Court (on an emergency basis!), a rumor circulated in Washington that Eisenhower believed the Court should never have ruled against segregated schools. When asked at a press conference whether the rumor was true, Eisenhower again refused to state his position about Brown but then said “I might have said something about ‘slower,” but I do believe that we should — because I do say, as I did yesterday or last week, we have got to have reason and sense and education, and a lot of other developments that go hand in hand as this process — if this process is going to have any real acceptance in the United States.” (p. 48, quoting transcript of press conference). This non-support was haled by Gov. Faubus and other segregationists as “vindication of their contentions.” (p.48)

    Martin Luther King also implored Pres. Eisenhower to speak out on several occasions. King also met with VP Nixon in 1957 and implored him as well to come south and speak out in favor of civil rights. Nixon refused. The growing frustration was palpable.

    Barton claims that it was “the Democrats” that “gutted” the 1957 Civil Rights Act, but as this book makes clear, Pres. Eisenhower, when asked at a press conference about whether he supported removing the key provision (later included in the 1964 Act) to allow the DOJ to initiate lawsuits against recalcitrant states and school boards, said “Well … I was reading a part of this bill this morning and … there were … certain phrases I didn’t completely understand …. I would want to talk to the Attorney General and see exactly what they do mean.” (58 Lonely Men at p. 54, quoting Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1957, p.. 562) . “The president’s revelation of ignorance about a bill he had recommended to Congress did not, to say the least, strengthen the hands of the Senators working for Title III. Following Eisenhower’s apparent withdrawal of support, the Senate deleted it.” (p. 54). The book makes clear that it was southern Democrats, combined with conservative Republicans, who were thwarting civil rights legislation. (p. 212)

    So I agree with you about the breaking point with Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 Act, but I think it’s important to also note the years of frustration that lead up to MLK’s decision to speak out against Goldwater. At some point, the heartbreaking frustrations of the black plaintiffs as year after year their efforts to actually enjoy the rights the Supreme Court had acknowledged they had as citizens, translated into a shift in black support from the Republican party to the Democratic party.

    One of the things that is so disturbing about Barton, which this book highlighted to me again, is that he supports so many of the same legal themes that the southern segregationists did. In particular, in his American Heritage Series, and in other more current presentations, he asserts that the other branches of the federal government, and the states, can “ignore the Supreme Court,” which is exactly what the segregationists argued.

    In 1956, 96 members of Congress signed what became known as the “Southern Manifesto,” which commended the southern states “which have declared the intention to resist.” “It did much to dignify the posture of definance, as did the interpositions resolutions [states could interposed themselves against federal statutes] adopted by Southern legislatures. These resolutions varying in tone from calm protest to proclamations that the Brown decision is null and void, have no legal significance. But their use of the great names of Jefferson and Madison gave a mantle of legitimacy to the notion that it is honorable for a [federal] district judge or a school board to ignore the Supreme Court’s construction of the Constitution, and that the path of honor is to disobey the Court.” (pp. 41-42)

    If anyone thinks this is ancient history, think again. Here is Barton peddling this same theoryTHIS YEAR, March 27, 2012, at a forum sponsored by the Tennessee Judicial Reform initiative, the Salt & Light Institute, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Black Robe Regiment, the 9/12 Project Tennessee, and something called “Gideon’s Army.” This is the whole presentation, so there is lot’s of detail and you can see the whole context. Barton starts at 14:33 and goes till the end of the hour.

    Thanks again for all your good work and apologies for the length of this comment.


    ** Written 1960, the book uses the then-currently-proper term “Negroes.” It also quotes the segregationists in their own raw words, without the nicety of euphemisms such as “the N-word.”

  • TxHistoryProf

    Barton neglects discussing the effects of “white flight” on school districts who were left with students but little tax revenue to educate them.

  • TxHistoryProf

    The Democratic Party has kept Americans dependent upon the social programs of LBJ .