Each time I see the African American community preparing to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic presidential candidate, I recall the warm Washington spring forty years ago when a craggy-faced septuagenarian named Everett McKinley Dirksen convinced his Republican senate colleagues to back cloture on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which broke the southern Democratic filibuster and ensured passage of legislation triggering the "Second Reconstruction."
In a mellifluous voice, made more so by his penchant for belting down a daily mixture of Ponds cold cream and water, the Minority Leader warned Republicans not to let segregation do what slavery had done to its Whig ancestor. "The Whig Party temporized, compromised upon the issue of freedom for the Negro," he thundered. "That party disappeared. It deserved to disappear. Shall the Republican Party receive or deserve any better fate if it compromises upon the issue of freedom for all men."
The list of conservative Republicans who heeded Dirksen—Hruska, Curtis, Mundt, Miller, Jordan and others—was impressive, particularly with Senator Barry Goldwater, the party's presidential candidate, opposing the bill. Only six Republicans joined the twenty-two Democrats against cloture. But this was no aberration. In the twenty-six major civil rights bills to come before the Congress between 1933 and 1964, a majority of Democrats voted "nay" more than 80 percent of the time while Republican majorities voted "aye" more than 96 percent of the time.
Yet following passage of the Civil Rights Act and the following year's Voting Rights Act, the steady march of black voters to the Democratic camp, begun during the Roosevelt years and eventually became a stampede. In 1960, for example, Richard Nixon won nearly a third of the black vote. In recent presidential elections that number has sunk to about 10 percent, a figure George W. Bush will be lucky to achieve.
Why? Liberal suggestions that Republicans inherited the cause of racism, previously championed by southern Democrats, lacks empirical support. Most segregationist Democrats remained Democrats. The new southern Republicans were mainly refugees from the North, passionate about low taxes and non-union labor, not keeping the races apart. Rather, over the next twenty to thirty years, the civil rights legislation, coupled with the ascendancy of sun-belt Republican conservatives, turned what had effectively been a four party system into a two party system. The parties divided along internally homogenous ideological lines. Conservative southern Democrats and liberal northern Republicans became endangered species.
The African American political leadership opted for a Democratic party wedded to broad welfare programs, a K–12 educational system dominated by the teachers unions, racial entitlements in education, public contracting and employment and social insurance monopolized by government. The Republican issues: investment-stimulating tax policies, schools with standards, an emphasis on domestic and national security, and social policies reflecting traditional "family values," found scant black support.
For years my sense has been that black political leaders have traded nominal advantage for the real political clout more eclectic political allegiance could provide and embraced government "solutions" that impede the next great wave of African American progress.
Everett Dirksen knew the way. It is not the Republicans who are lost.