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Republicans: The Party of Civil Rights Since 1854

Presidential campaigns are unpredictable, as the sudden national debate about the Confederate flag that flies over the South Carolina state capitol demonstrates.  At a time when America is threatened by ISIS, expansionist Russia, and China, plus a dreary economy who would have guessed we would be thrust into a discussion of flags and symbols from a long concluded conflict?

Yet, when a story like this makes it into the national headlines there’s a reflexive struggle to define the narrative. Republicans who fail to engage in the debate risk being defined by our opponents – just ask Mitt Romney.

This isa great opportunity to discuss and compare the history of the two political parties.  If we’re going to have a debate about history, that’s one our team will win if we have the courage to do so.

First, let’s remind people of how the Republican Party came to be.  At its origin, the Republican Party was a single issue party founded on the idea of abolishing slavery across the entire nation.  We fielded our first Presidential candidate in 1856 with Californian John Fremont (yes, the city of Fremont, California is named for him).  Something of a scoundrel with a colorful past, Fremont lost but his candidacy paved the way for the first Republican president: Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

The Republican Lincoln was so anti-slavery that his election prompted Southern leaders bent on protecting slavery as an institution to begin withdrawing from the union, quickly forming the Confederate States of America on the principles of “states rights” and preserving a southern slave-based economy.

Lincoln was determined to both preserve the union while putting an end to the institution of slavery, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation as an exercise of his war time powers.  Concerned that following a Union victory the courts could find the Emancipation Proclamation no longer valid, Lincoln personally championed passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to permanently rid the country of slavery.

Which party in Congress championed the 13th amendment?  The Republicans.  And which party stood for the most part in opposition?  The Democrats.

Following southern Reconstruction, Democrats quickly regained control of virtually all the southern state capitols and while the institution of slavery was abolished, racist policies continued in the form of segregation and other manifestations of “Jim Crow laws.”  Many Democrats invented, preserved and defended these policies for the next hundred years throughout the “solid South.”  Solid meaning solidly Democrat.

America subsequently fought two major world conflicts under Democratic presidencies: World War I under Woodrow Wilson and World War II under FDR and then briefly under Harry S. Truman.  Yet, both Wilson and Roosevelt preserved segregation of the armed forces as a matter of federal policy.

Finally, in 1948, Democrat President Truman of Missouri ended segregation in the military with Executive Order 9981.  He deserves great credit for this.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership from 1953 to 1961 had a profound impact on the advancement of civil rights beyond the military.

Eisenhower appointed former California governor (and former California Republican Party Chairman) Earl Warren to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Warren’s role was critical in reaching a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 ending public school segregation.

When the segregationist Governor Orval Faubus (D) of Arkansas defied the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown to allow African American children to enroll in Little Rock’s Central High School, it was Eisenhower who nationalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent in the 101st Airborne to restore order allow the “Little Rock Nine” African American children to register for school.

Ten years later when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson (D), a greater percentage of Republicans in each chamber voted for the legislation compared to Democrats, many of whom were still clinging to the segregationist and racial policies of the past.

The Civil Rights movement in America has been bi-partisan, and no party can claim a monopoly over it.  However, a candid look at history shows that the Republican Party and its leaders played a central role in the advancement of civil rights in America.

The party was founded specifically to abolish slavery.  Lincoln personally championed passage of the constitutional amendment that purged the institution.  Eisenhower appointed the chief architect of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and sent into federal troops to make it stick.

And that confederate state flag in South Carolina that’s gotten so much attention?  Erected in 1962 by a Democrat legislature under Democrat Governor Fritz Hollings as a show of defiance to the growing civil rights movement.

That the flag will come down under a Republican governor and a Republican legislature is not ironic at all.  It’s entirely consistent with the spirit of the Republican Party’s founding and proud history.