Response to ‘Democratic Party racism’ op-ed

January 16, 2019

I don’t know op-ed writer Todd Peterson’s background nor his experiences with racism and white supremacy, but as someone who lived and worked in the Jim Crow South for a dozen years and covered seminal racial events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, I am well acquainted with the reality that Democrats were indeed the party of slavery and Jim Crow.

But Peterson seems to imply that racial history somehow stopped with the establishment and execution of Jim Crow policies and laws and that Democrats somehow continue to be responsible for racial animosity in the United States. Great Americans, such as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and others, unaffiliated with political parties began leading the nation out of Jim Crow and toward racial equality in the mid-1950s.

However, it was a Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who spearheaded passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Democrat John F. Kennedy had gotten the ball rolling with a strong nationally televised speech in 1963 calling for a comprehensive civil rights bill. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and the support it received from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations began pushing Southern white Democrats away from the party and toward the GOP.

As the 1968 election approached, Richard Nixon seized on an initiative popularized by a young political researcher named Kevin Phillips in a book entitled, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” and subsequently called by others more simply, “the Southern Strategy.”

It was a somewhat unsavory theory predicting an inevitable cycle of Republican dominance that would begin in the late 1960s and continue at least until the advent of the 21st century. To many, the theory sounded a bit repugnant because it was premised on the alleged hostility of Irishmen, Italians and Poles, whose ethnic traits were conservative, toward liberals — mostly Jews, Negroes, and affluent Yankees, who formed the backbone of political liberalism.

Phillips posited that there were more of the former than the latter and they were ineluctably trending Republican.

Nixon saw that the Southern white middle-class along with many whites living in Northern suburbs were smoldering over the grant of civil rights to minorities accompanied by concomitant inconveniences, such as school busing and unaccustomed propinquity to minority races due to the new public accommodations laws.

Phillips reckoned that a new Republican majority could be fashioned in the 11 states of the Old Confederacy to which could be added the existing Republican base in the north, Midwest, Plains, Mountain West, and Pacific West. Although Nixon would prove to be less averse to black interests that some of his supporters might have hoped, that did not change the South’s new allegiance to the GOP in presidential elections.

Even though Jimmy Carter of Georgia won the South in 1976 and Bill Clinton of Arkansas made dents in the once-solid South in both 1992 and 1996, the GOP, with exceptions for Barack Obama, and one Southern state for Hillary Clinton (Virginia) in 2016, the South has become the backbone of Trump Country and the Republican Party in general. Ronald Reagan’s two elections pursued the same Phillips-Nixon Southern Strategy, notoriously kicking off his presidential campaign of 1980 on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where four civil rights workers had been murdered.

The GOP is now the party of the Old Confederacy plus a sprinkling of thinly populated states that share strong demographic similarities with the Confederate states. This Trumpian political party has embraced and promulgates the wholly un-American values of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism.

The Lyndon Johnson quote cited by Peterson is a long time undocumented right-wing meme that has never been substantiated. It is well-known, of course, that LBJ frequently used the “N word,” often to sound like “a good ole boy” when trying to persuade Southern members of the Senate to vote his way.

As to Johnson’s motivations for pushing through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, perhaps the clearest account resides in the magisterial biographies of Johnson by Robert A.Caro: “When somebody tried to persuade Johnson not to waste his time or political capital on the lost cause of civil rights, the president replied, ‘Well, what the hell’s the presidency for? We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It’s time now to write the next chapter.’”

When the likes of Trump and Steve King depart Washington, I doubt they will be missed.

Stephan Lesher is a retired journalist and a resident of Southbury.

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