I’m sure you’ve heard people claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican, and that Democrats are actually the party of segregation. It’s a line most commonly trotted out by Republicans trying to draw attention away from their complete derision of the Black Lives Matter movement. Whether a given political party supported racist policies in the past is of far less interest to me than whether they support racist policies in the present. But this claim is also incorrect, and exploring the more accurate reality is fascinating.
It turns out the history is extremely interesting and nuanced when you’re exploring it for its own sake, and not to score political points. I’d suggest readers start with this twitter thread from historian Kevin Kruse. It started when right-wing hack Dinesh D’Souza claimed that if Emmett Till had been old enough to vote, he would never have voted for the Democrats, which he calls “the party of lynching and the KKK.” Kruse responds by pointing out that we actually know how Till’s mother voted, and it wasn’t for the Republicans.
In his tweet thread, Kruse includes an image of a newspaper article printed the year after Till’s death, which directly addressed how Till’s mother, Mrs. Bradley, intended to vote—and why. Here is what it said:
Mrs. Bradley also said that she intends to vote for Adlai Stevenson in the forthcoming elections.
She said that while she likes President Eisenhower personally, she felt that Stevenson was the best man to carry out the job of putting over a vigorous civil rights program.
It’s certainly amusing to see D’Souza assert that Emmett Till would have voted Republican only to have this unsourced claim so easily undermined by the very public nature of his mother’s contemporaneous non-Republican voting habits. But what D’Souza wants to make black and white is actually far more complex: the middle decades of the 20th century saw significant shifts in both the major political parties’ positions on race and in African Americans’ voting habits.
After the Civil War, a powerful faction within the Republican Party known as the “Radical Republicans” championed African Americans’ rights. However, as soon as it was politically expedient, Republicans threw over African Americans’ rights. (I do mean this literally—in 1876, Republicans traded African Americans’ rights in the U.S. South for the presidency by agreeing to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the U.S. South if Democrats would allow the Republican candidate to have the presidency).
Throughout this period, African Americans tended to vote for—and run as—Republicans. While the removal of federal troops and inadequate end of Reconstruction created very serious problems for blacks in the U.S. South, it wasn’t as if they had a better political option. In 1868, three African Americans were elected to U.S. Congress. They were from Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In 1870, this number rose to five. In 1872, voters in the U.S. South sent seven black men to Congress. In 1874, eight. After this, things started to break down.
As Reconstruction ended across the U.S. South, African Americans found their voting rights severely curtailed, if not eliminated entirely. In 1876 they sent four of their own to the U.S. Congress, then one, then two, then two, then two, then three. Then, in 1890, one. In 1892, one. In 1894, one. In 1896, one. In 1898, one. And then it was over. For thirty years, no black person would be elected to the U.S. Congress.
Up to this point, every black person elected to the U.S. Congress was from the South, and every one of them was a Republican. The next black person to become a member of the U.S. Congress—Oscar Stanton De Priest—was elected in 1928. He too was a Republican, but he was not from the South. He was from Illinois. Chicago.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, African Americans fled Jim Crow in the South for growing economic opportunities in cities in the North. Things were not perfect in the North, but they were often better. And in the North, African Americans could vote. De Priest won reelection in 1930, and again in 1932. And then something curious happened. In 1934, De Priest lost his seat to another African American, Arther Wergs Mitchell. A Democrat. Mitchell ran on a platform supporting FDR’s New Deal.
There was no one moment that moved black voters from the Republican column to the Democratic column, but the New Deal played a large role. African Americans were hit especially hard by the Depression, and they badly needed the public relief programs FDR created, but that wasn’t the only draw. There was also the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, was an adamant advocate for black Americans’ civil rights.
Eleanor was so staunch in her support for anti-lynching legislation that J. Edgar Hoover reportedly believed she must be part black. The anti-lynching bill, dubbed the Costigan-Wagner Act, is actually itself an example of the shift that was occurring. The bill was sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers, but FDR refused to take it up out of concern that support for this act would cost him support of southern Democrats.
Ah, but now I’ve gotten away from the story I was telling about black lawmakers. Mitchell won reelection until 1942, when he retired voluntarily. His Chicago area seat was won by William Levi Dawson, another black Democrat and only the third black man elected to U.S. Congress since 1900. Dawson held his seat for 20 years—and he was soon not alone. In 1944, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—a Democrat—won election in New York City.
Dawson and Powell were the only black lawmakers in the U.S. Congress until 1954, when black Americans added a seat in Detroit. In 1956, they added another seat, this time in Philadelphia. In 1962 they added a fifth sweat, this time in Los Angeles. And so it went, as black Americans added seats in urban areas outside of the U.S. South, running as Democrats almost as a rule. (The single exception was Edward William Brook III of Massachusetts, a moderate who won his seat as a Republican in 1966.)
It was Harry Truman, a Democrat, who desegregated the U.S. military. Southern Democrats were so angered by this and mother moves that they briefly left the party, staging a “Dixiecrat” rebellion. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both Democrats, took a variety of steps to help the civil rights movement, sending in federal marshals to support court-ordered school desegregation and, ultimately, passing federal civil rights legislation.
Reality is complicated. As a percentage, more Republican lawmakers than Democratic lawmakers voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That same year, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, a staunch opponent of federal civil rights legislation. Then, in 1968, black southerners challenged white southerner’s control of the Democratic Party in the U.S. South. That same year, Richard Nixon ran on “law and order,” using a variety of dog whistles to court racist southern whites. Despite this, Nixon’s administration made significant progress on affirmative action. History is messy. Transitions rarely take place in one election cycle or one decade.
For the record, Martin Luther King Jr. was not a Republican. But he also didn’t exist for either political party to use as some sort of political score counter. Nor did any of the black historical figures mentioned in this post. Nor do black Americans today. One reason the Democratic primary still feels so up for grabs right now is that many black Americans are supporting a candidate whose track record they feel they can count on—Joe Biden—over other candidates they worry may take their vote for granted, or who they feel aren’t listening.
It’s like I said: shit’s complicated. But it’s far more productive (and interesting) to engage with a complicated, nuanced, often messy reality than it is to create fictional pasts (or presents) centered on scoring points. To be clear, though, this is not a “both sides are wrong” post. We are not in a moment, in our present, where both sides are equally wrong, either in their support for racist policies or in their accuracy at doing history.
I worry that many on the right can’t see history outside of point-scoring. And that bothers me! It’s a bastardization of not only what history should be about, but also of what makes history interesting. And not just interesting, but also productive. It’s often in the messiness that there is the most to learn.
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