Bringing back party of Lincoln

June 20, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- An intriguing debate has broken out among Republican elites over how to treat black folks.

On one side, you have those such as Jack Kemp, the former New York congressman and 1996 Republican vice presidential candidate, who would like to break the Democratic Party's 9-1 lock on black voters by reaching out with positive and meaningful gestures. Mr. Kemp wrote a commentary published in late May in Human Events and newspapers that called on the GOP to "get on the right side of history" on racial matters.

He suggested two ways to do this: by extending all of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, parts of which are set to expire next year, and "by extending the voting franchise to the residents of District of Columbia," which is predominantly black and lacks voting representation in Congress.

"Slander," responded conservative essayist Steven M. Warshawsky. "Mr. Kemp's article is an outrage." His article appeared under the headline "Jack Kemp's White Guilt" in The American Spectator. Mr. Warshawsky does not necessarily disagree with Mr. Kemp's suggestion, but with the justification: "His premise - that the Republican Party is on the `wrong' side of history on racial matters - is deeply flawed, both as a matter of historical fact and political philosophy."

Mr. Warshawsky cites historical examples of the GOP's "strong support for black Americans" dating to its origins before the Civil War, often with Democrats on the other side, defending slavery and segregation.

Who's right? As with many other questions about race and rights, that depends on what part of history you're talking about.

Mr. Warshawsky is right that Republicans too often get a bum rap on race, considering the heroic sacrifices many Republicans have made for racial progress. The Chicago Tribune's first great leader, Joseph Medill, opposed slavery, helped found the Republican Party 150 years ago and supported the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, who is still my favorite president.

But Mr. Kemp also is right in explaining why the GOP lost black support after the glory days of Dwight Eisenhower. As an African-American child of the 1950s Eisenhower years, I have fond memories of another Republican Party, much more moderate on the topic of race and other issues than the GOP we know today. The words "black Republican" would have raised eyebrows only because the label "black" was not yet in fashion. We were still "colored" in those days.

Just about everybody "liked Ike" in my little Ohio factory town, including the "colored" folks. I recall my childhood's greatest political turning point, in 1957, when our little black-and-white TV showed Arkansas National Guard troops with bayonets on their rifles keeping black students out of Little Rock's Central High School. The next day, I turned on the news to see those same troops escorting those same black students into the school, past jeering white mobs. What happened? "President Eisenhower must have made a phone call," my father explained. After that, I really liked Ike!

Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act turned black voters heavily in favor of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and simultaneously lost Southern white voters to Mr. Johnson's party, as Mr. Johnson predicted it would. To black voters, the act of sacrificing political capital is true heroism, especially on behalf of equal rights. Soon the Republican Party became known as the party of white flight, an image only partly redeemed in recent years by the success of high-profile black Republicans such as Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

With all that history in mind, I applaud Jack Kemp. Unlike some conservative zealots, he does not see government as the enemy. He sees it as a vehicle to help individual initiative and free enterprise work for everyone, even those who are still facing poverty, substandard housing, high unemployment and low-performing schools after the civil rights revolution.

My family did not leave the party of Lincoln; the party left us. Folks like Jack Kemp can help it find its way back.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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