Stephen A. Smith's Bad History Goes Viral

The ESPN host repeats a myth, becomes a star.

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Stephen A. Smith attends ESPN Fashion Week - Revenge of the Jocks at The Box at Lincoln Center on September 10, 2013 in New York City.

Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for ESPN

The original Breitbart News clip about the quote has been shared nearly 20,000 times. A post at Glenn Beck's viral news site, The Blaze, is closing in on 22,000 shares. ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith's call for one election in which "every black person in America vote Republican" is making the rounds, the way that only a black pundit's denunciation of the Democrats can.

If there's a problem with Smith's analysis, which he made this week at the Impact Symposium in Tennessee, it's that his history veers from the mostly-true to the entirely-garbage. Smith even admitted that he might be botching his rationale for a black voter protest; "I'm open to correction," he said as he tried to explain the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act.

With that guidance, a line-by-line guide to Smith's epistle.

From what I’ve read, and I’m open to correction, but from what I’ve read, Barry Goldwater is going against Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s your Republican candidate. He is completely against the civil rights movement.

True, if complicated. Goldwater wasn't really set against the "civil rights movement." He'd actually voted for the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the somewhat toothless bill that then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson moved through a Democratic Senate. But like many conservatives—and on the advice of legal experts like William Rehnquist and Robert Bork—Goldwater worried that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would require "the creation of a federal police force of mammoth proportions." Goldwater would decry racism, then side with the people who worried that any state attempt to fight racism would chip away at freedom. 

Lyndon B. Johnson was in favor of it. What happens is, he wins office, Barry Goldwater loses office, but there was a Senate, a Republican Senate, that pushed the votes to the president’s desk.

Not true. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964; the Senate was run by Democrats from 1955 to 1981.

It was the Democrats who were against civil rights legislation.

This is true, but it's where the story always founders. Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, is credited with defeating the Southern Democrats' filibuster of the bill. Eighty-two percent of Senate Republicans backed the bill; only 69 percent of Senate Democrats did.

But the Democratic Party of 1964 was still the party of the South. As Harry Enten helpfully demonstrated, in 2013, the division on the Civil Rights Act wasn't between the parties. It was between Southerners and Northerners. All but one Democrat from a northern state—West Virginia Robert Byrd, who served until his death in 2010—voted for the act. All but one Southern Democrat voted against it. Every single Southern Republican opposed the act; 27 of 32 northern Republicans voted for it. So, it's totally true to say that "more Democrats than Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act." It's just odd to say that, then say this:

So because President Lyndon B. Johnson was a Democrat, black America assumed the Democrats were for it. 

Well, they largely were for it. The Democratic landslide of 1964 wiped out some of the northern Republicans, replacing them with Democrats who voted for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Only two Republicans voted against that bill—a better ratio than the Civil Rights Act had brought about. One of them was South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who'd left the Democratic Party for the GOP in September 1964, partly out of protest over—yes—the Civil Rights Act.

In 2013, in his speech to Howard University students, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said that the Democrats of the "'30s, '40s, '50s," had been segregationists. They knew that already, and the speech mostly tanked. Since then, Paul's avoided history lessons and started reaching out to black voters by talking up criminal justice reform, an end to police militarization—policies that some Democrats think they should lead on. "One of the great ironies for me," said possible 2016 presidential candidate Jim Webb in an interview with Vox, "having spent all this time on criminal justice reform, is how the Democrats have basically ceded this incredibly important issue to the Republicans, and Rand Paul's the guy who's been running with it."

Democrats are far less worried when someone tells black voters that they should vote based on what the parties looked like in 1964. It's not convincing—but boy, does it ever go viral.

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