Whenever the topic of racism gets brought up between Democrats and Republicans, there are two facts you’ll almost always hear conservatives use to counter the belief that their party is full of racism:
- President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican
- The KKK was largely organized, and populated by, Democrats
And both are facts.
But when someone uses these two items as their defense that the Republican party isn’t loaded with racism, they’re only showing their ignorance about the reality of racism within their party.
It’s true, Southern Democrats were extremely racist. At the same time, Northern “liberal” Democrats and Republicans had already been working together to end discrimination and pushed for ending segregation.
See, in 1948, President Harry Truman made one of the boldest public moves by a Democrat towards Civil Rights for African Americans by creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, and ending discrimination in the military. At the Democratic National Convention in 1948 a call was made for civil rights—prompting at least 35 Southern delegates to walk out.
These movements towards civil rights for African Americans spurred a short-lived political party — the States Rights Democratic Party, also known as the “Dixiecrats.” The people who comprised this movement adamantly defended segregation of the races. It was an attempt to keep the “tyrannical Northern liberals” from “destroying the freedom of states’ rights in the South.”
Luckily, this political party only lasted one election. But what this movement really did was recognize the shift of Democrats embracing equality for African Americans and Southern whites strongly opposing any mention of civil rights.
The moves by President Truman sparked the spread of equality in the South and left Southern white Democrats with a feeling that their party was abandoning their racist — and oppressive — system of beliefs.
Over the next decade, more and more Democrats began to embrace equality, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while more African Americans began to vote for Democrats, in the late-1960’s a new Republican strategy was put into place—the “Southern strategy.”
This was a plan was that was first popularized by Richard Nixon.
What the “Southern strategy” essentially does is it identified the fact that African Americans were voting for Democrats, therefore Republicans decided they would make white voters more aware of this fact in hopes of driving the “white vote” towards the Republican party.
Doubt me? Let’s look at a comment from a 1970’s interview in the New York Times with Richard Nixon’s political strategist:
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Essentially it was the Republican party saying, “Look, blacks are voting for Democrats so you white people need to vote for Republicans—the party that will represent whites and oppose the blacks.”
With this strategy, you saw the official shift of the Republican party from the “party of Lincoln” to the party which embraced white racism towards African Americans to solidify the white vote in the South.
So, yeah, it’s easy to say Lincoln was a Republican and the KKK was largely built by Democrats, but by doing so you only prove your own ignorance of history. You’re ignoring the fact that as Democrats evolved to embrace equality for African Americans, Southern racists were left looking for a new political party — and they found one that not only embraced their racism and bigotry, it sought it out.
And that party they found was the Republican party.