The Magazine

The Party of Civil Rights

It wasn't the Democrats.

Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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An anniversary passed without much notice on September 9th. It was fifty years since President Eisenhower signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act. This was the first civil rights legislation to make it into law since Reconstruction, and it also marked just about the last time that commentators considered the Republican party to be friendly to civil rights. In the five decades since, the idea that conservatives are hostile to minorities and civil rights has been a mainstay of academic research and publishing, amply reported by the press, and happily echoed by Democratic politicians. But if we revisit the 1957 law and trace events forward from there, we uncover a more interesting story.

The 1957 Civil Rights Act was mainly a Republican achievement. For a close to a century after the Civil War, the Democratic party had been hamstrung on civil rights. Much of their electoral base and congressional delegation was from the South, and southern Democrats worked as a bloc in Congress to nix any civil rights or voting bills. The Republicans had no senators and pitiably few House members from the South, and had many constituents, both black and white, repelled by segregation. So clear was the Republican profile on the issue that Harry Truman's 1947-48 civil rights program--usually seen as kick-starting the postwar civil rights debate--was in part motivated by Democrats' concerns that preexisting Republican efforts on civil rights might win decisive numbers of black votes in key northern states in the 1948 elections.

Truman did not enact most of his program, and reform legislation hardly came in a rush when Eisenhower succeeded him in 1953 either. But Eisenhower's Justice Department did side with those who found segregated schools unconstitutional when the Brown v. Board of Education case went before the Supreme Court. Even before his 1956 reelection campaign, Eisenhower proposed a civil rights package that focused on helping African Americans in the South register to vote, though southern Democrats quickly stalled the bill in Congress. And the Republicans' 1956 platform explicitly endorsed the Brown decision, while the Democrats' did not.

When the legislation was revived by the administration in 1957, it was assisted by a key ruling by Vice President Nixon, acting as Senate president, and propelled forward by a crucial intervention by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. As author David Nichols and others have shown, Johnson struck one of the bill's key provisions and gutted another by ensuring that anyone charged with voting rights violations would get a jury trial, which was understood to practically guarantee acquittal in the South. With the bill sufficiently watered down, almost all its southern opponents caved and--despite the drama of Senator Strom Thurmond's record 24-hour filibuster--the bill was passed. It created the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, laid the basis for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and tried to advance black voting rights in the South, which ultimately proved ineffectual. Within weeks of signing it, though, Eisenhower dispatched federal troops--paratroopers from the 101st Airborne--to Arkansas to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock schools.

Given all this, Nixon entered the 1960 election season with at least as strong a record on civil rights as John F. Kennedy and ran on an equally strong civil rights platform. But he lost, and from then on the idea that Republicans were soft on civil rights and even downright hostile to racial minorities became prevalent. It's a storyline that originated in the 1964 presidential campaign when Johnson easily defeated Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then as the Republican nominee won several Deep South states with heavy support from segregationists. With that, the main party of civil rights became known for its implied support of segregation. That was reinforced four years later, when Nixon, in his quest for the presidency, implicitly promised Southerners to go slow on integration, and once in office sided with southern school districts and opposed busing. From then on, the story goes, Republican politicians appealed to the politics of white solidarity by opposing busing and affirmative action, criticizing welfare, harping on crime (think Willie Horton), and appointing judges who rendered judgments in these same directions. Worse, these Republicans excelled: What Goldwater had done badly in 1964, Nixon, Reagan, and their successors learned to do well, often with code-words, a wink, and a nod. They supported civil rights in words but abandoned it in substance.