The Party of Lincoln ...

The history behind current events.
Aug. 10 2000 3:00 AM

The Party of Lincoln ...

But not of Hayes, Harrison, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, or Bush. 

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Some Republicans still grasped desperately for black ballots. In an ideologically divided party, liberal leaders, such as presidential nominees Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, incorporated pro-civil-rights language into the platforms. But their efforts paled next to Harry Truman's. Truman, the strongest civil rights president the nation had seen, won 70 percent of the black vote in 1948 with a bold, progressive racial agenda. He supported a Fair Employment Practices Commission to fight job discrimination and desegregated the military by executive order.

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By the 1950s racial liberalism in the GOP was fading fast. Dwight Eisenhower, a conservative (though) on race, opposed Truman on key issues. In 1945 Eisenhower testified before Congress against integrating the military, and as president he resisted reviving the FEPC. He opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. (Bowing to the inevitable, the 1956 GOP platform endorsed Brown.) Ike remarked that "you cannot change people's hearts merely by laws"—repeatedly justifying his inaction in the face of rising demands for civil rights laws.

(At last week's convention, Bush adviser Condoleezza Rice said the Alabama Republican Party of 1952 registered her father to vote when the Democrats wouldn't. That may be true, but in much of the deep South then the GOP was virtually nonexistent. In Georgia, writes the historian Taylor Branch, "Barry Goldwater had trouble drawing crowds to fill even barber shops.")

Entering the 1960 election the Democrats, behind such leaders as Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Herbert Lehman of New York, had become the unquestioned party of civil rights. Richard Nixon, who always overestimated his own popularity with blacks, still hoped to fare well—Jackie Robinson, for one, endorsed him—and he probably had a stronger civil rights record than John F. Kennedy. But JFK courted the black vote, famously phoning Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife, Coretta, when the civil rights leader was jailed. Kennedy would have commanded the black vote anyway, but the closeness of the election led analysts to mythologize the phone call as critical.

The battle over the 1964 Civil Rights Act marked the last hurrah for racial liberalism within the GOP. President Lyndon Johnson, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the liberal Democrats decided the time was ripe to pass a bill with teeth, their Southern party-mates be damned. While the Republican leadership took a wait-and-see position, younger GOP congressmen such as New York's John Lindsay (who later became a Democrat) and Maryland's Charles Mathias worked on the bill, helping it to passage in the House over Southern opposition.

In the Senate, Southern Democrats predictably undertook a filibuster, which boded ill. Never had civil rights advocates mustered the two-thirds supermajority needed to close off debate. At first, few Republican senators were willing to vote to end the filibuster, believing strongly in states' rights. But behind the scenes Vice President Hubert Humphrey negotiated with Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a supporter of the bill. Humphrey claimed that he courted Dirksen as avidly as he had wooed his wife, Muriel. Dirksen promised to round up enough Republican holdouts if Humphrey would attach amendments paying lip service to state and local control. The deal was struck, and after more than two months the Senate voted 71-29 for cloture, with six Republicans joining 23 Southern Democrats in opposition (44 Democrats and 27 Republicans voted aye).

Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, the Democrat who led the opposition, said Dirksen had "killed off a rapidly growing Republican Party in the South." But Russell had it backward. Significantly, the opponents of the 1964 law included the GOP's future leaders, including Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and Texas Senate aspirant George H.W. Bush. They knew their electoral success depended on conservative support in the South and West.

Goldwater's "Operation Dixie" in his 1964 presidential race may have meant surrendering the black vote; LBJ won 94 percent that year. But it bore fruit four years later. Richard Nixon's successful "Southern Strategy" of 1968 became the blueprint for Ronald Reagan's Southern inroads and Lee Atwater and George Bush's Willie Hortonism. So, if George W. Bush, running under the guidance of Atwater's protégé Karl Rove, can reverse that trend it will be more than a change in his party's line. He will be declaring, truly, that this is not his father's Republican Party. 

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.