Americans of African descent voted overwhelmingly Republican from the end of the Civil War to the 1930’s, but became almost totally Democrat by the 1970’s. No single event brought about this tectonic shift, but the change in black voting patterns began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During the depression, Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (“CCC”) gave starving men work, food and shelter. My father, a black American, lived and worked in a CCC camp for six months, and he was forever grateful.
As a result, he became a passionate Democrat, and disdained the Republican Party as the exclusive club of the heartless rich. When Truman became President, he ended racial segregation in the military, furthering the image of Democrats as the party of compassion and justice.
Then came John Kennedy, the inspiring symbol of the future. His famous call to Coretta Scott King while her husband was held in a Georgia jail created an emotional bond with black voters. Most historians agree that Pres. Kennedy was reticent at best, fearing that he would alienate southern Democrats. Nevertheless, he made the call and reinforced the idea that Democrats cared and Republicans did not. That single gesture caused Martin Luther King Sr. (“Daddy King”) to switch his support from Nixon to Kennedy, and many black voters did the same.
After the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson – the former segregationist who was known to use the N-word in private – became the public champion of Civil Rights. The last Republican to receive a significant percentage of the black vote was Richard Nixon with 32%. It was the dying gasp of a century long love affair between black voters and the GOP. They have now been estranged for half a century.
How did Republicans allow a constituency once firmly in their camp to make a wholesale exodus? Or to put it another way, how did Democrats wrench the black vote from the GOP’s grasp?
A common misperception held by black voters today is that as the Democrat Party became more sensitive to the needs of black citizens, Dixiecrats switched to the Republican Party. In other words, the parties reversed roles. While it is true that many southern whites became Republicans, there were other political re-alignments which disprove the role reversal theory.
As Northeastern Democrats embraced Civil Rights, they were also adopting abortion as a central tenet. Furthermore, the Democrat Party supported the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions which ruled in Engle v. Vitale, School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, and Murray v. Curlett that Prayer and Bible reading in public schools violate the First Amendment. Republicans were opposed.
In 1982 Ronald Reagan proposed a Constitutional Amendment to restore prayer to schools. That issue solidified the platforms and images of the two parties – the Democrats as secular liberals, the Republicans as evangelical conservatives. As secularism and identity politics became more influential among Democrats, they lurched to the far left. As evangelicals became more powerful in Republican ranks, the Party became more decidedly Christian. However, the GOP never became the party of segregationists as is wrongly thought. It became the party for people of faith, and I, a black American, was one of the people who left the Democrat Party to become a Republican in the early eighties.
The more Republicans took on a religious persona, the more the Democrats shunned religion. No one will ever forget the infamous moment when Democrats at their 2012 national convention took God out of their Platform, and then clumsily and over objections tried to put Him back. It was telling.
The Democrat Party brand as champion for black civil rights has also been weakened by the creation of new classes of “victims” – gays, illegal immigrants, Muslims, transgenders, the list goes on and on. The problems of the inner city are complex and horrifying, but fighting to allow the Caitlyn Jenners of the world to “be who they were meant to be” and use the bathroom of their choice makes for a simpler, more hip rallying cry. The only message Democrats have had to the black community for the last forty years boils down to, “Republicans are racists. Vote Democrat.”
In truth black voters no longer have a political home. Democrats take them for granted and Republicans consider them unreachable. Suddenly appears Donald J. Trump, a white, New York billionaire turned Republican politician, directly appealing to black citizens and expecting to get their votes.
“What the hell have you got to lose?” he asked again and again on the campaign trail. He repeatedly promised to do something about the crime and violence plaguing the inner cities. He has committed to give children of poor black parents an opportunity for a quality education through school choice. The election results showed 13% of black men voted for him, a staggeringly high number in light of recent voting history.
Are we witnessing an anomaly or is this the beginning of another seismic shift in the black vote like what took place from Roosevelt to Johnson? The jury is still out, but if President Trump delivers on his promises of jobs, education and safe streets, he may separate black voters from the Democrat coalition and bring them back to their original home in the Party of Lincoln.