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How the GOP Lost the African American Vote, And Their Civil Rights Reputation

If you were to ask your average millennial which party had supported the majority of civil and voting rights legislation for both African Americans and women over the last century, there’s a good chance that they would say the Democrats. Many would be surprised to realize that it was in fact the Republican Party that spearheaded not one, but several landmark pieces of legislation designed to bring women and minorities into the voting fray.

These inclusionary policiesbegan around the time of the Civil War. Before those days, the GOP was the radical party, composed of ideological liberals and anti-abolitionists. Once war broke out, though, the new Republicans went to work.

The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. The Republicans in Congress worked to write and to pass the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. These landmark amendments to the Constitution helped to outlaw slavery, to guarantee equal protection under the laws, and to secure voting rights for African American men.

At the same time, in 1896, the GOP made the first strides towards women’s suffrage. The Nineteenth Amendment was successfully ratified because 26 of 36 state legislatures were under the control of the GOP at the time.

During the Reconstruction period, African Americans voted solidly Republican, while Southern whites voted Democrat, because the Democrats had overwhelmingly supported the Confederacy while the Republicans had been supporting the Union.

Hiram Revels and Jeannette Rankin, the first African American man and the first woman to be elected to Congress, were both Republicans. In fact, African Americans were not even allowed to attend Democratic conventions until 1924. African Americans and women continued their pattern of voting Republican for decades, all the way up until the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt began to make inroads with the New Deal Coalition, despite the fact that nearly all segregationists in the South were Democrats.

In 1936, Roosevelt was able to get 71% of the black vote, a devastating blow to Republicans. The GOP was able to make some gains back during the 1950s under President Eisenhower, but the next decade would see the final nail in the coffin.

In 1964, Republican Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This was the first piece of civil rights legislation in 12 years that he had voted against, and his doing so proved devastating to his chances to beat incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that had been written by Republicans in Congress. Goldwater claimed that he voted against the bill because he believed parts of it to be unconstitutional. Still, the bill flew through the Senate, with the GOP providing a majority of the 60 votes needed.

Although LBJ had fought against and later castrated the 1957 Civil Rights Act as a senator during the Eisenhower administration, he will always be remembered for signing a somewhat weaker and more critically challenged act seven years later. 

Actions speak louder than words. Despite the fact that Republicans had led the fight for civil rights for a century, a Democrat was in office when everyone was paying attention, and he took the credit for himself and his party. Perhaps more people would not be so willing to laud the accolades onto President Johnson if they heard some of his more colorful thoughts.

Not every Republican entirely lost the support of African Americans during the 1960s. George Romney, (father of current GOP-Nominee-to-be Mitt Romney) who was governor of Michigan during the 1960s, won 30% of the African American vote during his race in 1966. George Romney was a staunch supporter of civil rights and desegregation, and even marched in solidarity alongside black protestors in Detroit who were outraged about the violence in Selma, Alabama.

As the years passed, the messages of the two major political parties evolved. The Republicans began to adopt more of a message of self-reliance, while the Democrats continued to promise that government could help people. The message continued and was doubled-down on as the evangelical Christian movement began to coalesce with the GOP after the Reagan Revolution in the early 1980s.

There's one thing that voters of all color and backgrounds share: they like being told what they want to hear. Minorities, white blue collar workers, and those living in poverty were told by one side that there would be help for them, and told by another side that they could and should do it themselves. 

The Republican message wasn’t meant to come across as cold, but voters began to take it that way. The image stuck, and more people ran into the arms of Democrats, who never stopped promising the world, even if they would never be able to deliver it.

Later on, no matter what hand the GOP had in things, their image remained tarnished, fairly or not. In the 1990s, a new Republican Congress led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich ushered in the wildly successful welfare reform. Signed into law by Bill Clinton (Democrat, again) these reforms help to lift millions out of poverty and led to a roaring economy and a budget surplus.

Clinton got the credit, despite the fact that he initially didn't want to sign the bill into law.

One could say that up until the mid-sixties, the GOP had been on the right side of history for a solid century. Up until that point, many prominent African Americans had been republicans. Frederick Douglas, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. all saw the GOP as the place to be.   

Many conservatives and Republicans today don't like the idea of dividing people up into groups. They prefer to look at the individual. Rather than focusing on instilling an equality of outcome for all people, conservatives prefer to focus on trying to guarantee an equality of opportunity. 

Thomas Sowell, Michael Steele, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice round out the most famous African American republicans today. Steele, a former Lt. governor of Maryland and chairman of the Republican Party, was once pelted with Oreos during a campaign appearance. Others are routinely labeled with such terms as "sell outs," or worse. 

Does the GOP deserve the reputation it has, as a racist, bigoted political party that only wants to keep minorities down under their boot? Was it the GOP that fought to keep the slaves from enjoying freedom? Was it Republicans that instituted poll taxes and later on Jim Crow Laws?

No.

Many Democrats try to come off as the savior of every disenfranchised group in the country. Republicans attempt to find new ways to tell them that they are strong enough and smart enough to do it on their own. Maybe neither of these points of view are racist. However, one could certainly argue that it's far from complimentary to tell someone, anyone, that they can’t do it on their own and will need the help of someone else to become successful. This isn’t a message that liberals apply only to African Americas or to women. Sadly, they seem to be intent on delivering it to everyone.

Perhaps the Conservatives, Libertarians, and Republicans will once again be seen as the true champions of individual liberty and true civil rights. It would certainly be much fairer a label than what they have now. 

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