The Party of Lincoln ...
But not of Hayes, Harrison, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, or Bush.
Now that its convention is over, will the Republican Party keep pretending that it likes black people? As the Philadelphia story would have it, attracting black voters simply means returning to a proud history from which the GOP has only recently deviated. In truth, the history of the Republican Party's relationship with blacks is one of a bright start followed by a gradual but steady decline.
In 1854, the Republican Party was founded mainly to end slavery, and for two decades it honorably promoted African-American equality. Its first presidential nominee, pioneer James C. Frémont, took a staunch anti-slavery stand in 1856 and ran well, paving the way for Abraham Lincoln's election four years later. Lincoln was no radical. He believed white men superior to blacks and opposed the outright abolition of slavery. But he wanted to stop slavery's westward expansion in the hope that it would die out—a position that won him endorsements from leading African-Americans such as Frederick Douglass and 40 percent of the overall vote, enough for victory in a four-way race.
After the Civil War, the "Radical Republicans," who oversaw the Reconstruction of the South, brought blacks into electoral politics. Blacks naturally joined the GOP rather than the white supremacist Southern Democrats. In these golden years, black Republicans got the vote and even won elective office (Mississippi elected the nation's first African-American senator in 1870). Led by the GOP, the nation ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which ended slavery and gave black men full citizenship and the franchise.
The GOP's abandonment of African-Americans commenced with the presidential election of 1876. The party had already been subordinating its agenda of black equality to that of cultivating Northern industrialists when Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, to resolve a contested election, agreed to the notorious Compromise of 1876. In exchange for their support, Hayes promised Southern Democrats to withdraw federal troops from the South and to let them treat blacks as they pleased. Almost immediately, white supremacist, or "redeemer" Democrats regained power, heralding the reign of Jim Crow. Ironically, the compromise also crippled black Republicanism, as state Republican parties, to compete for white votes, engaged in racial me-tooism, purging blacks from the party or shunting them into "Black and Tan" delegations whose legitimacy was.
By the Progressive Era, both the Republicans and the Democrats were generally uninterested in helping African-Americans. One issue that couldn't be ignored—though the parties tried—was the horror of lynching, which had become rampant in the post-Reconstruction South. Anti-lynching laws marked the last major civil rights issue on which Republicans were out in front.
In 1920 Leonidas Dyer, a Missouri Republican from a largely black St. Louis district, introduced an anti-lynching bill, which the new Republican president, Warren Harding, endorsed. The House passed it in January 1922 (231-199, with only 17 Republicans opposing and eight Northern or border-state Democrats in support). Yet even though they controlled the Senate too, the GOP couldn't, or wouldn't, pull out the stops to pass the law. While Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts supported the bill, the powerful Idaho Republican William Borah opposed it as meddling in states' rights and helped Southern Democrats kill it. The Borah-Lodge rift foretold a schism in the GOP between Northeastern liberals and a Midwestern and Western Old Guard that would later scramble the party's racial politics.
Meanwhile, blacks were fleeing the South for Northern cities. There, the Democrats' political machines delivered services and patronage to immigrants in exchange for their votes, and Democratic bosses shrewdly absorbed blacks into their system. In contrast, Republicans missed another opportunity. Their machines (yes, they existed too) reacted coolly to black voters' demands and to black politicians' ambitions—leading many to leave the party.
The realignment crystallized under President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1932, FDR won just 23 percent of the black vote. Yet he swiftly bolstered his black support. Gestures such as consulting a "black cabinet" of unofficial African-American advisers surely helped, but more important were his economic relief programs. The Depression hit black Americans disproportionately hard, and FDR's relief programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration, gave them much-needed aid and jobs. A popular song among Depression-era blacks made it plain:
Roosevelt! You're my man!
When the time come I ain't got a cent
You buy my groceries
And pay my rent.
Mr. Roosevelt, you're my man!
In Congress, meanwhile, Northern and Western Democrats took the lead on progressive racial legislation; it was two Democratic senators who in 1934 introduced the next major anti-lynching bill. Between 1932 and 1936, writes historian Nancy J. Weiss in Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR, "Roosevelt and the New Deal changed the voting habits of black Americans in ways that have lasted to our own time."
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.
Photographs of: Abraham Lincoln, circa April 1865, © Corbis; FDR by Oscar White © Corbis.