Owned and published by UMHB, The Bells is a biweekly publication. This content was previously published in print on the Opinions page. Opinions expressed in this section do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff or the university.
Abraham Lincoln was a racist. Well, actually, he was a Republican, which to some means the same thing. It is accepted as truth by many that the Republican Party is the refuge of bigots and racists, while the Democratic Party is hailed as the champion of black Americans, especially with Barack Obama’s election.
However, Republicans have historically been strong proponents of black advancement in America, and accepted truths to the contrary, they still are.
From its beginning, the Republican Party stood to liberate black Americans from the oppression of slavery and racism. Lincoln, the first Republican president, secured freedom for black slaves, and many other Republicans after him continued in the same spirit. Ulysses S. Grant, who defeated the Confederacy, signed the first anti-Ku Klux Klan legislation as president. Jeremiah Haralson, Jefferson Long and other black Americans rose to be elected to Congress after the Civil War as Republicans.
A Republican congress passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 over the veto of Democratic president Andrew Johnson and drafted the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship to black Americans.
In 1964, a greater percentage of congressional Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, and in 1966 Edward Brooke, a Republican, became the first elected black senator.
Clarence Thomas, currently the only black Supreme Court justice, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush. General Colin Powell became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed to the office by president Ronald Reagan. He became the first black secretary of state during President George W. Bush’s first term, and after his retirement, Condoleeza Rice took his place, the first black woman to hold the office.
Despite this storied history, most black Americans today are Democrats. This may have to do with the fact that Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he had much more national visibility than the Republican congressmen who joined him.
While it’s true that today there are no black Republican congressmen or senators, that has more to do with demographics than anything else. If, as some surveys show, up to 90% of black Americans identify themselves as Democrats, there simply aren’t that many black Republicans to run. When they have, however, Republican voters have enthusiastically supported them.
Former congressman J.C. Watts Jr, was elected as a Republican to four terms in Congress by voters in Oklahoma, an extremely white, Republican state.
Lt. Governor Michael Steele of Maryland, a black Republican, ran unsuccessfully for one of the state’s senate seats in 2004, but he did receive the overwhelming majority of Republican votes.
Fortunately, even some Democrats are beginning to acknowledge the role Republicans have played in black advancement and have stopped painting them as Jim Crow racists.
During president-elect Obama’s victory speech, he said, “Let’s remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity. Those are values that we all share.” Well said.