MAXWELL:  GOP has earned the enmity of blacks

1/27/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like many other African-Americans, I have always seen the national Republican Party as the enemy. And nothing in recent years has changed my mind significantly. I am addressing this topic because several angry readers _ who themselves express hatred of Democrats _ have asked me to explain why blacks dislike and fear the overwhelming majority of Republicans.

Here, I speak only for myself. As a young man, I knew exactly why I liked Democrats and why I held Republicans in contempt. Democrats, who supported civil rights and voting rights legislation, were good. Republicans, who always voted against us, were bad. That simple.

Images of Democratic benevolence pervaded black life. My maternal and paternal grandparents, for example, had photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt on their living room walls. My uncles, who served in Korea, adored Harry Truman because he integrated the military. And John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson took civil rights to new levels, forever endearing themselves to blacks.

On the other hand, even before I was 12, the images of Republican politicians, along with their Dixiecrat soul mates, screaming “niggers” this and “niggers” that, were burned into my consciousness as symbols of bigotry and intolerance. Not counting Abe Lincoln, I had nothing good to say about a single Republican until I went to college in 1963.

One of my first assignments in political science was to research prospects for passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). I was shocked to learn that Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Republican conservative and minority leader, was the Senate sponsor of both measures and that he worked closely with President Johnson, a yellow dog Democrat. Without Dirkson’s sense of fairness and conciliation, passage of the bills would have been stalled perhaps for another decade. Dirksen’s moral weight and political savvy persuaded many other Republicans to support legislation that would change the nation forever.

Outside of Dirksen, the GOP has pretty much peopled the national stage with extremists, beginning in the 1960s with Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential campaign set a new standard for conservatism and hawkishness.

Richard Nixon, who despite establishing affirmative action, engineered what has become known as “Southern strategy,” his party’s successful, code-word campaign to encourage traditional Southern white Democrats to defect to the GOP and to appeal to Hispanic voters, especially in California, Florida and Texas. After all, the GOP had to compete with Alabama Gov. George Wallace for the souls of Southern white folk.

Ronald Reagan may have done more than any other Republican to alienate blacks from the GOP. In word and in deed, he was insensitive to the plight of blacks. He never met with black leaders and cast blacks, especially women on welfare, in the worst possible light. Gerald Ford, basically a good human being,was not in office long enough to harm us.

Then came George Bush. During his first presidential campaign, he used Willie Horton, who murdered a white woman while on parole, to symbolize black America at a time when the call to “law and order” meant to fear blacks. To make matters worse, Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court to replace Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights icon for the ages. Few blacks have forgiven the former president for what they consider the ultimate act of disrespect. None has forgotten.

Just when African-Americans thought that the GOP could not sink lower in their estimation, along comes the 1994 revolution and the Contract with America. The so-called freshman class, having won the Senate and the House, polarized the nation, making many blacks feel more unwelcome than ever before. Many of these firebrands have aligned themselves with militias and other fringe groups that despise Jews and blacks.

And now we learn that Senate Majority Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., have associated with the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose members call themselves “a pro-white, pro-European group. . . .”

Blacks recognize such code words for what they are: racism.

Today, at the state level, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida are operating as so-called “compassionate conservatives” and are causing many blacks to reconsider some old thinking. Both are reaching out to blacks. Both seem to be sincere. Perhaps both have a hint of Everett Dirksen in them. Blacks in Florida and Texas hope so.