Catch of the Day: Race, Parties and Distorting History

The Democratic Party was once racist. Then the party shattered.
Ol' Strom was a Democrat. Then a Republican.

I'm a day late, but still happy to award a Catch to Jamelle Bouie's unfortunately necessary takedown of John Fund's nonsense in the National Review about race and the parties.

This is all about a recent Republican talking point identifying the Democratic Party as the one most responsible for Jim Crow, as if -- well, it's not clear exactly what the point is supposed to be. Something about Southern Democrats were racist, so Voter ID!

Bouie pointed out the obvious: The Democratic Party had a horrible record on civil rights. Until it didn't. That old segregationist Democratic Party is long gone.

What I think needs more emphasis, however, is the extent to which Democrats (including black Democrats) made a deliberate choice to ally themselves with black Americans and other civil rights supporters, and to fully repudiate their party's history. This began well before the end of segregation, with President Franklin Roosevelt's successful effort to repeal the "two-thirds" rule, which gave the South a veto on presidential nominations. It continued with Hubert Humphrey's successful battle for a strong civil rights plank in the 1948 convention, which resulted in the first of several party schisms, prompting "Dixiecrats" to walk out. After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the national Democratic Party was fully committed to civil rights. In subsequent years, the state parties followed.

The Northern politicians who allied themselves with Jim Crow deserve condemnation along with their Southern counterparts. The mid-century Democrats, including Roosevelt, who straddled the segregation line should also be held accountable; in some cases their trade-offs might have been justified, while in others they clearly weren't.

However, the Democrats' embrace of civil rights didn't result from some sort of passive drift. It was a product of struggle. Humphrey and other Democrats -- including black politicians who rose to positions of power in the party and a generation of Southern white Democrats who embraced civil rights -- deserve credit for choosing the side of justice even as it broke their party in two. Which it certainly did.

That history of struggle against white supremacy, and the ultimate creation of a new party, is precisely why blacks are at the center of the contemporary Democratic coalition. It's also why the party as a whole is so strongly supportive of, for example, voting rights.

Some conservatives prefer a bizarro version of history that treats that struggle, and the resulting party schism, as if they never happened. Furthermore, they ignore the segregationists who fled the Democratic Party to become Republicans. It's wrong -- not just exaggerated, but flat-out wrong -- to say that the contemporary Republican Party is simply the old racist Dixiecrats in modern dress. Whatever the Republican Party's current record on race, it surely is not supportive of white supremacy as the old Southern Democrats were. But it's either nuts or blind partisanship to focus on a history of racism that Democrats long ago repudiated, at great cost, while pretending that on civil rights, the Republican Party has been the exclusive domain of liberal civil-rights leaders such as the late Senator Jacob Javits of New York (who lost a Republican primary in 1980 and surely couldn't win one today). Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms became Republicans for a reason.

And: Nice catch!

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