Black voters guided by past

October 24, 2004|By Kenneth Lavon Johnson

QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN expressed during this political season about whether black voters need to re-examine their strong support for Democratic platforms and candidates in favor of Republican policies that might now have new relevance for blacks.

To say today that the poor must help themselves not by demanding a seat at a lunch counter but by owning that lunch counter and, by inference, that Republican domestic policies would further that aim, requires blacks to overlook decades of history in this country.

And this is what they would be overlooking:

In the South, until the 1960s, blacks largely were prevented from becoming members of the Democratic Party by violence, threats of violence and numerous ingenious and fraudulent schemes to prevent them from voting. So long as Southern Democratic politicians supported the policies of racial segregation, they were elected and re-elected by white Southern voters.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ran for re-election on a Democratic platform that contained a civil rights plank, the first by a national political party in the United States. Southern politicians were so outraged by that plank that a large number of them left the Democratic Party and formed a party of Dixiecrats, with the avowed purpose of maintaining white supremacy, euphemistically called "racial segregation" and "the Southern way of life."

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Brown vs. Board of Education desegregating public schools. According to Chief Justice Earl Warren, in his autobiography, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, while still in office, did not once endorse the Brown decision.

Southern resistance to Brown was fierce and sustained, with Southern congressmen preaching outright defiance. In 1956, 19 members of the Senate and 81 members of the House representing 11 Southern states issued a "Southern Manifesto" vowing to fight Brown.

In the presidential election of 1960, John F. Kennedy, the Democrat, narrowly defeated Richard M. Nixon, the Republican. Mr. Kennedy was sympathetic toward blacks' quest for justice and Mr. Nixon was not. The 1960 presidential election marks the first time in the history of our country that the majority Southern black vote went to the Democratic candidate. Blacks have remained loyal to the Democratic Party since then because its policies have more closely aligned with their interests than have those of the Republican Party.

In his 1972 campaign for re-election, Mr. Nixon ran openly and notoriously on what the White House called the "Southern strategy," making an open appeal to Southern whites who resented the gains made by the civil rights movement.

That movement and its Northern Democratic and Republican allies together ensured passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It was the gains made during the civil rights movement and the passage of these acts that caused the Southern whites' flight from the Democratic Party into the arms of the Republican Party.

In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party nominee, made his first campaign stop at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Philadelphia is where a lynch mob led by a deputy sheriff of the county and the Ku Klux Klan killed three civil rights workers in 1964. Mr. Reagan, at that county fair, said, "I believe in states' rights" - code words then and now for racial segregation in the South.

The sit-ins in the 1960s were among the first steps in an attempt to gain equal rights, economic and social, for blacks. Even today, blacks have far less access to capital provided by the government and the private sector than do whites. The rich continue to feed freely at the public trough, largely through tax breaks and subsidies most beneficial for them and made possible in part by the cheap labor provided to them by the poor, both white and black.

Slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow and racial segregation prevented blacks from sitting at the "white only" lunch counters, much less from owning them. It was not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that blacks were given the right to sit at the lunch counters and the right to equal employment opportunities that permitted them to begin to amass the capital to own them. It was not until passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that blacks were given the right to obtain decent housing in order to create legacy wealth to pass on to their children.

Perhaps Republicans will need more substantive economic measures than a "trickle-down" policy to energize blacks as to which party deserves their vote. I look forward to a time when both Democrats and Republicans offer programs that will allow the poor, as well as the rich, to vote their economic interests rather than their racial identity.

Kenneth Lavon Johnson is a retired judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

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