Thursday, November 19, 2009

Short Memories: Republicans and Civil Rights

There's a curious case of memory loss that seems to be afflicting both left and right this morning over the history of civil rights legislation. Link, (link). Start with Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina:
Just as we were the people who passed the civil rights bills back in the '60s without very much help from our colleagues across the aisle," said Fox. "They love to engage in revisionist history.
Shift now to Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of North Carolina California:
Today, what I’m hearing on the floor really takes the cake. The gentlelady from North Carolina, in her statement just now, indicated that the Republican GOP had passed the Civil Rights Act legislation with almost no help from the Democrats. I can’t believe my ears. It was the Kennedy and Johnson administration where we passed that Great Society legislation. It was over the objections of people like Jesse Helms from the gentlewoman’s state that we passed that civil rights legislation. John Lewis…
In response, Republicans gleefully jumped on the fact that Cardoza was wrong about Jesse Helms: he wasn't even in the Senate until 1972.

But on the larger issue--comments are still pouring in and I won't pretend to be keeping up with them; still, the fact is that Foxx actually had a kind of a point here. What she was really talking about the Civil Rights of 1957, which was passed on the initiative of the Eisenhower Administration, over the dead-body opposition of the Senate Democratic leadership--and only after the Democrats had so gutted it as to leave it largely meaningless.

How fast memories fade: recall that the pre-1960 Democratic party was a monstrous two-headed beast with liberal (sometimes radical) union members, blacks and intellectuals on one side and reactionary So;uthern whites on the other. It was the Republicans who still carried a progressive tradition on civil rights, going back to the founding of the party at the beginning of the Civil War.

Eisenhower himself, as many have observed, wasn't deeply hostile to blacks, but he just didn't get it:the real motivation came from the "northeast" wing of the party, notably Attorney General Herbert Brownell. Leading the Senate opposition was Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. As others have remarked, this created thre ironic mirroring in which the forces in fazvor of enhanced civil rights were led by a man who had no particular taste to it, while the opposition came from one southerner whose attitude towards racial minorities was one of genuine compassion.

When he signed the Civil Rights Act, Johnson famously said he figured he'd delivered the south to the Republicans for a long time to come. That was the year Rep. Foxx turned 21.

Update: I am catching offline flac for having saddled Lyndon Johnson with the onus of "leading the Senate opposition." The point is made that Johnson was in fact the person who jammed the bill through. ITechnically correct, but am unrepentant. I don't doubt the sincerity of Johnson's compassion for blacks. But he had two choices: one, let the bill fail, at the behest of the old bulls who still dominated the august body (e.g., Johnson's personal mentor, Richard Russell of Georgia). And two, strip it naked and deprive of all nourishment and push it forth into a hostile world. Johnson knew he couldn't make his bones as a Presidential candidate in 1960 without a civil rights scalp in his belt. So he chose the path of betrayal.

I am, at the end of the day, something of the Johnson fan. He certainly is the most interesting president of my lifetime (or perhaps a close second, behind Richard Nixon). But there is no point in obscuring how many grandmothers he had to pitch under how many speeding locomotives to get where he wanted to be.


Anonymous said...

Technical correction: Dennis Cardoza represents the 18th District of California.

Buce said...

I knew that. But thanks. Can't imaagine why I screwed it up.

Ralph Hitchens said...

Everyone seems to be afflicted with memory loss when confronted with the messy history of their party. & I share your appreciation of both Johnson & Nixon as extremely interesting political giants of the 20th century -- in both a remarkable mixture of the admirable and the detestable.

JWhite said...

President Truman's civil rights program "is a farce and a sham--an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty. I am opposed to that program. I have voted against the so-called poll tax repeal bill. . .. I have voted against the so-called anti-lynching bill."
--Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson (D., Texas), 1948

"These Negroes, they're getting pretty uppity these days and that's a problem for us since they've got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we've got to do something about this, we've got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don't move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there'll be no way of stopping them, we'll lose the filibuster and there'll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It'll be Reconstruction all over again."
--Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D., Texas), 1957

Johnson voted against every civil rights bill he could, until he feared Republicans like Martin Luther King, jr. could defeat the Democrat's nationally.