Friday, March 15, 2013

Take 2: How did the Lincoln Republicans morph into the Obama Democrats?

In the aftermath of the movie Lincoln and President Obama's re-election, two people at Our War book discussions asked me how, on issues of equality and inclusion, the party of Lincoln became the party of Obama. For help I turned to my historian friend Michael Birkner and recorded his thoughts in an earlier blog post.

David M. Kennedy, Stanford professor emeritus. 
Because this has been one of the most popular posts on the Our War blog, it occurred to me to ask the same question of another historian friend, David M. Kennedy. David won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in history for Freedom from Fear: America in Depression and War, 1929-1945, and we subsequently served together for several years on the Pulitzer Prize board.

Here is David's response:

"Passing the torch of leadership on the issue of racial equality from Republicans to Democrats is one of the Great Train Robberies of American political history.

"The party of Lincoln abandoned the cause of safeguarding black civil rights as early as the 1870s, as the great southern historian C. Vann Woodward documented so well in works like The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Origins of the New South and Reunion and Reaction. The Democratic Party, anchored for a century in first the slave and then the Jim Crow South, likewise showed no interest in the issue until well into the 20th century.

"Then a series of developments   owing especially to brave leadership by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson – committed the Democrats to the support of African-American civil rights during the Depression and post-World War II eras. Civil rights leader Andrew Young once rightly said that the opening chapter in the 20th century's largely successful civil rights struggle was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority during  FDR's fabled 'Hundred Days,' because it put the federal government in the business of catalyzing the modernization of the largely rural, agricultural South.

"In 1941, FDR also issued Executive Order 8802, creating the Fair Employment Practice Committee to protect black workers in defense industries. That action has been compared with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as one of the most consequential federal initiatives ever taken specifically on behalf of black Americans  and the first one in seven decades.

"Harry Truman followed with an executive order integrating the armed forces, and Johnson secured passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, major milestones in the long struggle to secure full citizenship for black citizens. Johnson predicted that his embrace of the civil rights agenda would cost his party the political loyalty of the South for at least a generation  an accurate forecast that helps explain the ascendancy of a newly invigorated Republican coalition since the 1960s.

"Now that Hispanics have surpassed African-Americans as the largest minority community  and as the nation heads into a demographic future in which no racial or ethnic group will constitute a majority  Republicans are once again confronted with the moral as well as political implications of being identified as the party of white Americans only."

Thank you, David.

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