Civil Rights, Brought to You By…Republicans?

Reserve your calendar now.

Two weeks into the New Year, conservative outlets continue to promote the 2005 Republican Freedom Calendar, a 12-month wall calendar “celebrating a century and a half of civil rights achievements by the party of Lincoln.”

The stated purpose of the Republican Freedom Calendar is to promote the story, “as remarkable as it is untold,” of “the many important Republican achievements in advancing civil rights.” But actually the Calendar does a good deal more than that. Not only does the Calendar ignore the civil rights achievements of Democrats, it paints the Democratic Party as a perennial enemy of civil rights. The Calendar also omits the embarrassing chapters in Republican history.

One-sided history would be expected, I suppose, if the Republican Freedom Calendar were a campaign flyer. But the Calendar is a government publication prepared by the Policy Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Like the Education Department’s contract with black commentator Armstrong Williams, the Republican Freedom Calendar represents an alarming use of taxpayer dollars for Republican propaganda aimed primarily at African-Americans.

The Calendar tells us that “every single African-American in Congress until 1935 was a Republican.” It does not mention that the situation is quite different today, when the 109th Congress has 43 black Democrats–and not a single black Republican.

The Calendar mentions “two African-American women who were…co-founders of the NAACP: Ida Wells and Mary Terrell, great Republicans, both of them.” It does not acknowledge that the NAACP’s relationship to the Republican Party has changed since the days of Wells and Terrell. President Bush has described his relationship with the NAACP as “basically nonexistent.” On the NAACP’s most recent Federal Legislative Report Card, every Republican in Congress received a failing grade.

Later, the Calendar tells us that Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public schools, “was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the three-term Republican Governor of California appointed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.” It does not mention that Warren was one of only two Republicans on the 1954 Supreme Court. The other seven Justices, all Democrats, voted unanimously for the Brown decision.

The Calendar also neglects to mention Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who argued the Brown case. Marshall later became the first black Solicitor General and the first black Supreme Court Justice. He was appointed to those positions, of course, by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.

President Johnson also helped to push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Yet the Republican Freedom Calendar describes these laws as Republican triumphs. The Calendar does not mention that Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican Presidential nominee, won five Deep South states because of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. It does not mention that Republican George H.W. Bush opposed the Civil Rights Act in his 1964 run for the U.S. Senate. (Bush lost to Democrat Ralph Yarborough, who was the only Southern Senator to vote for the Civil Rights Act.) The Calendar does not mention that Ronald Reagan, in his 1966 campaign to become Governor of California, endorsed repeal of California’s Fair Housing Act, saying, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

What the Calendar does say is this: “Republicans supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act overwhelmingly, and by much higher percentages in both House and Senate than the Democrats. Indeed, the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law only after overcoming a Democrat filibuster.”

Like similar statements made by black conservatives over the past several years, this account suggests that the Civil Rights Act was a partisan contest between Democrats and Republicans. In fact, Congressional votes on the Civil Rights Act did not break along party lines–they split along regional lines. In the North, both parties supported the Civil Rights Act; in the South, both parties opposed it. The difference was that the Republican Party had very little presence in the South, which had been dominated since the 1870s by the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party.

Today, of course, the old Dixiecrats have nearly disappeared, and white Southerners vote heavily for the GOP. This is not a coincidence; it was the 1964 split between Northern and Southern Democrats that opened the South to anti-civil-rights overtures from Republicans such as Goldwater, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. The realignment of the South is one of the most important consequences of the Civil Rights Movement, yet the Republican Freedom Calendar makes no mention of it.

Civil rights historians know that both political parties–and even individual party leaders such as Johnson and Goldwater–had both moments of shame and moments of glory. Historians also know that the civil rights achievements of the 1950s and 1960s began outside the party system, with activist groups like the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

If you want honest civil rights history, there are a number of terrific books and documentaries, from Eric Foner’s Brief History of Reconstruction to Henry Hampton’s documentary series Eyes on the Prize to the most recent National Book Award Winner, Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice.

If you want a nice wall calendar, there are plenty in the clearance bin of your local bookstore.

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