Today, we have an exciting and timely guest blog post from Joshua D. Farrington, who teaches history and African American Studies at the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University. Farrington is the author of the recently-published Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP, which recently received a terrific review in the New York Times. Farrington's book argues that, though often excluded from traditional narratives of U.S. politics, black Republicans left an indelible mark on the history of their party, the civil rights movement, and twentieth-century political development. However, as his post today explores, the presence of black Republicans in today's GOP is of a markedly different nature than in the early and mid-20th century. Here, Farrington lends his expertise to pondering the question of how and why this shift came about.
The past decade has seen a resurgence of black Republicans on the national stage. Many conservatives, tired of mainstream GOP candidates, have found rising black Republican stars as particularly refreshing—especially because many come from the anti-conciliatory Tea Party wing and are openly critical of the “moderate” and “weak” Republican establishment. Their race also doesn’t hurt, as it can be used to deflect allegations of Republican racism against Barack Obama. Black Republicans like Allen West of Florida or presidential candidate Ben Carson have become icons of partisan evangelicals and the so-called “alt-right” websites like the Drudge Report, Breitbart, and World Net Daily. Currently, black Republicans William Hurd of Texas and Mia Love of Utah represent majority-white districts in Congress, and Tim Scott represents South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. Though black support of the Republican Party, and its presidential candidate Donald Trump, is perhaps at near-record lows, there are clearly a disproportionate number of African Americans within the party on the national level in positions of power.
Despite their prominence on the national level, black Republicans today are often treated as curiosities who don’t align with our conventional political narratives. When a recent reviewer of my book, Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP, asked in the New York Times Book Review “Can You Be Black And Republican?” the answer gathered from Twitter and Facebook commentary seemed to be a pretty decisive “No.” To the extent that African Americans can be Republican today, the GOP is for those that come from the margins of black politics, and are out of touch with black culture, politics, and life.
A look at black Republicans of the 1940s through 1970s points to a time when black Republicans were leaders and respected figures in their communities, part of the mainstream of black political thought, and militants in their advocacy for black civil rights. These were men and women like Massachusetts senator Edward W. Brooke, whose work to end discrimination in the sale or rental of housing culminated in the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It includes Chicago’s black Republican alderman and preacher, Archibald Carey, whose church served as the original headquarters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and whose 1952 remarks at the Republican National Convention inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It includes Grant Reynolds, who partnered with A. Philip Randolph in the 1940s to challenge military discrimination, and who in the 1960s chaired the National Negro Republican Assembly, an organization dedicated to challenging conservatives within the GOP who opposed civil rights. It incudes “the Father of Affirmative Action,” Art Fletcher, and the one-time head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, William Coleman Jr. It’s a story that includes some of the biggest names of the civil rights era, who at one time or another, described themselves as Republican: Jackie Robinson, James Meredith, James Farmer, Floyd McKissick, Benjamin Hooks, Charles Evers, and Eldridge Cleaver. It is, essentially, a story not of the black fringe, but the story of a time when the Republican Party represented a legitimate alternative for mainstream African Americans.
So, what happened to this generation of black Republicans who were influential figures both within their communities and within their party? In one sense, theirs is the story of most liberal Republicans. Beginning with the conservative revolution of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, moderates and liberals found themselves increasingly marginalized. Moderates who once made up an important constituency of the party—and were represented by powerful leaders from Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney to John Sherman Cooper and Jacob Javits—were outcasts by the 1980s and 1990s. As liberal Republicans themselves, most black Republicans who had allied with this group of “Rockefeller Republicans” likewise found themselves on the outside.
The full story, though, is not just that many black Republicans felt ideologically disconnected from a party that no longer felt like home. As stated by Senator Brooke, “You can’t say the Negro left the Republican Party; the Negro feels he was evicted from the Republican Party.” Indeed, the historical record shows that not only did moderate African Americans increasingly feel isolated within their party, but that they were the targets of a systemic coup beginning in the 1960s.
Take the city of Memphis. Starting in the 1920s, African Americans Robert Church Jr. and George W. Lee dominated local Republican politics. They controlled patronage, including the appointments of black-friendly federal judges during the terms of Republican presidents, and marshaled the black vote through their powerful organizational machine, the Lincoln League. As late as 1960, Lee continued to secure black representation inside the Tennessee delegation to the Republican National Convention, and convinced thousands of local blacks to remain loyal to the GOP. However, by 1964 the city’s Republican organization had been taken over by newly converted white Democrats, eager to support the party’s conservative, anti-civil rights icon, Barry Goldwater. After forty years of leadership within the party, Lee was removed from power by waves of new party converts, and his rivals openly bragged they had created a new “white Republican Party.”
Similarly, the South Carolina Republican Party—which had a significant black constituency in the 1950s—reported in the early 1960s that black members had been removed from party ranks, which was “welcomed” by new party leadership, who believed “victory in the South at any level could never be achieved by a Negro dominated party.” In Georgia, where black Republicans had long played a significant role in Atlanta politics, white Democrats similarly flooded party ranks in the early 1960s to secure the nomination of Goldwater. Georgia’s delegation to the 1964 national convention, for the first time in forty years, was all white. “The Negro has been read out of the Republican Party of Georgia here today,” proclaimed one of the party’s new officials.
By the 1980s, Southern Republican organizations that had removed blacks from their ranks two decades prior were willing to accept African Americans in party positions, but only those who strictly adhered to conservative ideology. Similarly, the Reagan administration was certainly open to black participation, but not to those who identified as liberal. Rather than turning to African Americans who had participated in party activities for decades as “Rockefeller Republicans,” Reagan opened his arms to a new generation of mostly unknown black conservatives like Clarence Thomas. And while black Republican leaders of the mid-twentieth served as bridges between the party establishment and black voters, high-profile black Republican stars since the 1980s have instead only furthered the gap between the two.
That they ultimately lost their battle to make the GOP a viable alternative to black voters should not diminish the place black Republicans of the 1940s through 1970s should have in our historical narratives of American history, black politics, and the civil rights movement. “Neglected, forgotten, and unsung,” Simeon Booker of Ebony wrote about black Republicans who served in the Nixon White House, “let’s give credit to the blacks who struggle against the odds to bring some hope and relief to their people.”