Cross-posted from The Nation
Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others look on, Washington, D.C., July 2, 1964; Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum
(image by photograph, Cecil Stoughton)
The Republican Party was, for a vital century, the major American political party that most frequently aligned with the cause of civil rights. The invariably realistic Frederick Douglass explained, "I knew that however bad the Republican Party was, the Democratic party was much worse. The elements of which the Republican Party was composed gave better ground for the ultimate hope of the success of the colored man's cause than those of the Democratic Party."
Well into the twentieth century, many leading Republicans took seriously their party's history and the responsibility that went with it. They worked to earn the votes of African-Americans and all supporters of equal justice under law, declaring in the party's 1960 platform that...
"[t]his nation was created to give expression, validity and purpose to our spiritual heritage -- the supreme worth of the individual. In such a nation -- a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal -- racial discrimination has no place. It can hardly be reconciled with a Constitution that guarantees equal protection under law to all persons. In a deeper sense, too, it is immoral and unjust. As to those matters within reach of political action and leadership, we pledge ourselves unreservedly to its eradication."
True to their word, top Republicans in Congress provided advice, counsel and support that was essential to the development and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
While Democrats struggled with their party's internal contradictions on the issue -- deferring far too frequently to the demands of Southern segregationists who held powerful committee chairs in the House and Senate, and who commanded machines that delivered needed electoral votes -- Republicans demanded action. "When President John F. Kennedy failed to submit a promised civil rights bill, three Republicans (Representatives William McCulloch of Ohio, John Lindsay of New York and Charles Mathias of Maryland) introduced one of their own," noted The New York Times in recalling the great struggles of the era. "This inspired Mr. Kennedy to deliver on his promise, and it built Republican support for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
When the key votes in the House and the Senate came 50 years ago, Republicans were significantly more supportive of the Civil Rights Act than were Democrats. The measure passed the House on a 290-130 vote, with support from 61 percent of House Democrats (152 in favor, 96 opposed). But Republican lawmakers gave it 80 percent backing (138 in support, just 34 against).
The critical test came in the Senate in June, 1964. Republicans aligned with northern Democrats to break the segregationist filibuster. Then, 82 percent of Republican senators backed the final passage of the measure, as opposed to two-thirds of Senate Democrats.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, he is said to have told an aide, "We [Democrats] have lost the South for a generation."
But that statement did not just apply to the Democrats. Republicans were, necessarily, part of the change equation.
The change began to develop quickly. Two weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the Republican National Convention in San Francisco nominated for the presidency Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, one of the handful of Republican senators who had opposed the measure.
Two months later, a key Democratic foe of civil rights, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, switched his party affiliation and began working to remake the Republican Party so that it could appeal to Southern white voters. Thurmond was an essential backer of the campaigns of Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. His influence on Nixon, who developed a so-called "Southern strategy" to help realize Thurmond's vision of a transformed political map, was immense. It extended deep into the decision-making process for the selections of a vice president and Supreme Court nominees.
At the same time, civil rights advocates within the Republican Party either left or were defeated. House minority leader Charles Halleck, the Indiana Republican who worked closely with the Johnson administration to pass muscular civil rights protections was deposed the following January by his own caucus. John Lindsay, who was rejected in his own party's 1969 New York City mayoral primary (winning instead on the Liberal Party line), became a Democrat in 1971. His ally in the 1963 civil rights push "Mac" Mathias was so unsettled by the GOP's move to the right that he threatened to run for the presidency in 1976 as a progressive independent. Other champions of civil rights, such as California Senator Thomas Kuchel (the Republican floor manager in the fights to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), New Jersey Senator Clifford Case and New York Senator Jacob Javits, would eventually lose primaries to conservative challengers.
The senators who were rejected did not lose merely because of their civil rights advocacy but because of their Lincolnesque vision of a progressive Republican Party that, in Kuchel's words, "brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many."
That philosophy was replaced by a more rigid and divisive politics. "The Republican Party that had been ceased to be sometime in the 1980s, and the modern party -- the radical conservative party -- not only has little or no interest in honoring its history, it is actively hostile to it," Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of the brilliant 2012 book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party explained to Todd Purdum.
Purdum, who has written his own fine book on the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked the anniversary of the signing of the act with an article headlined, "Why the Civil Rights Act Couldn't Pass Today."
Purdum is appropriately critical of both major parties, but his most damning statement is an observation that "the Party of Lincoln became the party of white backlash, especially in the South."