The first Black to serve in the Executive Office of the President of the United States was E. Frederick Morrow, a Republican appointed by a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first Black to serve on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was Benjamin L. Hooks, also appointed by a Republican President, Richard M. Nixon. The first Black United States Senator in the 20th Century was a Republican, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. The first Black to serve as Secretary of Transportation was a Republican, William T. Coleman, appointed by President Gerald R. Ford and at the time only the second Black to serve on the Cabinet level. Former General Colin Powell was the first Black National Security Advisor, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appointed by President George H. Bush, and the first Black Secretary of State, appointed by President George W. Bush. Now Michael Steele has become the first Black chair of the Republican National Committee.
So why is the Republican Party dismissed by most Black voters and viewed by many Blacks as openly hostile toward the community? Despite an impressive list of “firsts,” in which Blacks were given highly visible and one could argue, powerful or potentially powerful and influential posts, the GOP today is seen as fundamentally biased by many Black Americans in the country.
The roots of the party’s disconnect with Black voters can be traced to the 1964 election and the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Though Blacks had started to leave the Republican nest during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the GOP still had a foothold in the Black community during the Eisenhower presidency and Richard Nixon’s run for the White House in 1960. It began to lose steam in 1960 after Blacks had comfortably settled into northern cities, a result of the Great Migration, and began to align with Democratic Party machines in the old, industrial cities of the north and Midwest. The emergence of John F. Kennedy and the young, but growing, civil rights movement set the stage for a dramatic shift in party allegiance among Blacks.
The 1964 election proved pivotal. Carried by the energy of the March on Washington, and the emotion resulting from the assassination of John F. Kennedy; Blacks from Mississippi made a dramatic stand against southern Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” at the party’s convention in Atlantic City and set the stage for the transformation of party politics. Meanwhile, in San Francisco a much different picture was emerging at the Republican National Convention. First, a B-list Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan was switching his allegiance to the GOP and endorsing the party’s standard-bearer. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for President, was a conservative who was not shy in advocating a minimalist approach to governance. Though the incumbent Lyndon Johnson in the general election eventually trounced Goldwater, the battle lines became clear for the Red and Blue state fiasco we witness today.
From there things went completely downhill for the GOP’s relationship with Black voters. Despite the historic Senate win by Ed Brooke in 1966, by 1968 Richard Nixon was running on a “law and order” platform built upon a “southern strategy,” appealing to the racial animus of white, working class voters. It was a wedge that was further exploited and refined by Ronald Reagan twelve years later. The Californian signaled his retreat on civil rights when he made the announcement of his candidacy from Philadelphia, Mississippi and made no mention of the three murdered civil rights workers – Chaney, Goodman & Schwerner – whose bodies were disposed in an earthen dam in the small town in 1963. It was a not so subtle shot across the bow and a clear wink to southern voters, many who would later self identify as “Reagan Democrats.”
Through the Reagan years and beyond, the Republican Party seemed to find ways to incite Blacks despite some high profile political appointments. Post-Reagan the GOP managed to get two Blacks elected to Congress, J.C. Watt of Oklahoma and Gary Frank of Connecticut, but drew the wrath of most Blacks with the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. The appointment of Thomas by President George H. Bush not only angered Blacks due to the nominee’s conservative orientation but there was a sense that his naming to the high Court insulted the legacy of Thurgood Marshall. The allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas by former staff member Anita Hill also poured more salt into the wound as Black women condemned the party’s support of the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Since then, whether through the formal party apparatus or its echo chamber on talk radio, the Republican Party has opted to turn right rather than shift toward the center. For almost two decades conservative driven talk radio, and later the Fox News Channel on cable television, has provided a platform to racially coded right-wing rhetoric by Republican surrogates. The party has occupied a space on the political landscape where few Blacks care to go. Captured by its conservative wing, the Republican Party’s message veered from an attack on big government to an attack on Blacks and other minorities who they view as the root of the nation’s decline. As if to add insult to injury, Blacks have had to endure intermittent flashes of open hostility such as the assault on affirmative action led by a Black, Ward Connerly, and the clumsiness of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, who managed to reminisce about the good old days of Jim Crow. In other words, there has been very little that connects Blacks to the party formerly viewed through the lens of Emancipation.
The two incidents, though, that may have been the deal breaker for Blacks in their opinion of the GOP ironically are associated with the most recent Republican to serve in the White House, George W. Bush; someone who sought to soften the party’s tone as governor of Texas and preached “compassionate conservatism.” His election in 2000 will always be considered illegitimate by many Blacks due to the disfranchisement of Black voters in Florida and the controversial decision of the United States Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98. The Bush presidency further isolated Blacks from the Republican Party by the administration’s tragic mishandling of emergency relief after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Images of Blacks stranded in New Orleans and bodies left unattended, while Mr. Bush congratulated FEMA head Mike Brown for a “heckuva job” in leading relied efforts, painted the President and the GOP as insensitive and indifferent to Black suffering.
Today, the Republican Party has yet to recover and Blacks have yet to signal any movement back to the party of Lincoln. While the election of Michael Steele as GOP chairperson is hailed as historic, it will most likely take a significant moderation of the party’s more conservative positions. Republicans have an even tougher job on their hands winning back Blacks as President Barack Obama is viewed as a transformative figure in Black politics and the nation in general. Whether Steele can penetrate the Black electorate in any significant way remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Republican Party must find ways to engage Black voters or risk becoming a permanent minority party in the 21st Century.