Here at Swarthmore, Republicans are often called racist. Almost daily, I’m treated to cocky sermons about how the Democratic Party is the “good” party on civil rights. This view ignores the bloody, violent history of Democratic racism. Democrats of all kinds—liberals, too—committed the bulk of racial sin in this country’s history. Republicans have bigotry in their own past, but it simply doesn’t compare to the terrible crimes of the other party. Let’s go on a brief tour of American history so you can see what I mean.
Lyndon Johnson is credited with passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This bill was also filibustered by Democrats, and most of the nay votes were Democratic ones. In the Senate, 82 percent of Republicans voted yea, compared to 69 percent of Democrats; in the House, the breakdown was 80 percent to 63 percent. Among those voting nay were Democratic icons like J. William Fulbright, Richard Russell, Sam Ervin, and Robert Byrd. They all fought the bill just as they fought every other piece of civil rights legislation.
These Democrats’ hostility to blacks was part of a long tradition that began before the Civil War. Shortly after its founding, the Democratic Party consolidated a base constituency in Southern slave states. The planter class exerted disproportionate pressure over Congress and tried to expand slavery to the western territories. The South refused to respect the results of the 1860 election, tearing our country in two. Not all Democrats supported slavery, but there’s no denying that slavery was the Democratic Party’s system and the grueling war that abolished it was the Democratic Party’s fault.
During Reconstruction, unrepentant ex-Confederates made sure that freedom from slavery would be the only freedom blacks had. Nathan Bedford Forrest, delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention, became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and unleashed a wave of slaughter against blacks and Republicans. After the army withdrew from Southern states in 1877, Democratic legislatures immediately began segregating blacks from whites, denying the former their basic rights. Ignoring the Civil Rights Act of 1875, racist politicians segregated public works, restaurants, restrooms and countless other parts of everyday life. Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and merciless intimidation stopped blacks from voting. By the 1890s Jim Crow weighed over the entire South and would remain for decades after. This “Solid South” was so heavily Democratic that Republican presidential candidates simply wrote it off as a lost cause.
When I mention this, I’m told that it was only the conservative wing of the Democratic Party that was committing these crimes, not the liberal wing that’s now the party’s core. This is false. Some of America’s worst racial offenders were progressive Democrats now lauded as forefathers of modern liberalism. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, was one of our most racist presidents. He filled his cabinet with Southerners. During his term all corners of government were re-segregated (Wilson’s explanations were “it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people” and “I sincerely believe it to be in their interest”); civil servants used all kinds of techniques to reject black candidates. Southern states quickly took example, usually at the direction of Wilson’s cabinet: local bureaucracies purged their ranks of black workers or demoted them. During the First World War blacks fought in segregated units, and despite cries of injustice from black leaders, Wilson made no move to change the status quo. Indeed, the White House had a screening of Birth of a Nation in 1915, the first ever film to be shown there, and Wilson’s comment was “it is all so terribly true.”
Franklin Roosevelt, another liberal icon, also has a miserable civil rights record. While he served Assistant Navy Secretary under Wilson, his department was completely re-segregated. This gave Roosevelt no unease. As president, his first appointment to the Supreme Court was Hugo Black of Alabama, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and opponent of anti-lynching legislation. Although New Deal policies did not intend to hurt blacks, they certainly did, and Roosevelt did little to stop it. The NIRA robbed work from hundreds of thousands of blacks and the TVA discriminated against black farmers, sometimes forcing them off their property. Roosevelt’s record really plummeted during the Second World War: as before, black soldiers fought in segregated units, and the government interned tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. The president’s personal life was not much better. At his home in New York black servants were forbidden to eat with white ones. He owned a Georgia resort that was for whites only, and black employees were obliged to sleep in the cellar. Roosevelt may have been a great president, but he was no champion of civil rights.
Government was not the only organ through which Democrats abused blacks. Unions, organizations then and now overwhelmingly Democratic, were openly racist. In 1906 W. E. B. Du Bois characterized unions as “the greatest enemy of the black working man.” Well into the twentieth century they were still trying to stop blacks from succeeding. Economist Ray Marshall notes that “in 1930 there were at least 26 national unions which barred Negroes from membership by formal means.” Many unions approved of minimum wage laws partly because they priced blacks out of the labor market (this was also an apartheid tactic). After Brown v. Board, unions opposing school integration started enlisting Klansmen. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, some unions continued to use informal methods to reject blacks. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has much to be ashamed of.
I don’t pretend that there are no racist Republicans; there are. But the crimes of my party cannot be equated to those of the other. It was Democrats who fought for slavery; it was Democrats who instituted segregation; and it was Democrats who fought tooth and nail against its abolishment. No, most modern Democrats aren’t racist. But they have absolutely no right to be cocky about civil rights. It’s like a doctor who’s smug about curing one patient when he poisoned the previous twenty. Cut out the fantasies and talk about your past, Democrats.