Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Leah Wright Rigueur provides a thoughtful inquiry into the unraveling between Republicans and African-Americans in her authorial debut, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.
This erosion occurred over a period of decades, most problematically between 1936 and 1980, the focus of her book. She writes that much of the historical literature on African-Americans in politics is focused on the left, tracing their ties to the movements of feminism, liberalism and Black Power. Her impressive collection adds to the body of historical literature for African-Americans on the political right. Rigueur states she unearthed some 20,000 primary source documents for the detailed tome, which introduces readers to a rich history of black Republicans who are forgotten in today’s GOP.
“My aim in this project is to offer a new understanding of the interaction between African Americans and the Republican Party and provide insights into the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism,” she writes. “Many of these smaller archives featured the stories of figures who were ‘proudly Republican,’ while others offered glimpses into the worlds of ‘quiet’ party members – black men and women who kept their political preferences hidden from their public lives, or dabbled in GOP politics, moving in and out of the party depending on the broader political context.”
She traces the stories of black members of the GOP who eventually became both a political minority in their racial community and a racial minority in their political party, a tenuous position for which Rigueur is sympathetic. Her tone seems almost wistful at times for the historical figures who unsuccessfully tried to steer the U.S.S. GOP away from the shoals of electoral ignominy within the black community.
One such figure is political scientist Ralph Bunche, the first African-American and person of color to receive the Nobel Prize in 1950 for his mediation work in Israel. Earlier in his career, the Republican Policy Committee asked Bunche to conduct a post-mortem analysis on why black voters were leaving the Party of Lincoln to vote for Franklin Roosevelt despite decades of goodwill toward the GOP and endorsements from black celebrities like Olympian Jesse Owens. Bunche completed the report in 1939, yet the GOP would only release a sanitized version that was critical only of the New Deal, though Bunche was also critical of his fellow Republicans for failing to grasp the social and economic barriers holding back progress for black voters.
“In no uncertain terms, black Republicans offer a dilemma of sorts; they were far more conservative than their Democratic counterparts but far less conservative than white reactionary Republicans,” she writes. “Above all else, most held fast to a pragmatic ideology that was informed by their day-to-day racial experience rather than by an abstract, dogmatic interpretation of American politics.”
Rigueur reports that Bunche’s recommendations for outreach to African-Americans were largely ignored, though Republicans gained some ground in 1940 and 1944 elections in part because Roosevelt was unwilling to push through anti-lynching legislation. However, Harry S. Truman proved a vocal advocate for civil rights, creating a President’s Commission on Civil Rights and releasing proposals to assist with employment, abolish poll taxes, prohibit and prosecute lynching, and also desegregate the military. In 1948, Truman won 75 percent of the black vote, which was also the first year that a majority of black voters registered as Democrats 56 percent compared to 25 percent Republicans.
“For the Republican Party, the election of 1948 was problematic in various ways, but especially in that party strategists determined that had 15 percent more African Americans voted for the GOP, Thomas Dewey would have been president,” Rigueur said.
She describes black Republicans as “shaken” after the unraveling of black support for the GOP. In 1952, Eisenhower got just 21 percent of black votes yet he won, Rigueur asserts, because GOP strategists “rationalized that they did not need black voters to win national elections, so long as they could attract a large enough constituency of white southerners.”
Rigueur writes that Ike’s approach to civil rights was “gradualism,” and he asked blacks “to be patient and ‘place their ultimate faith in time,’ a position that most blacks rejected. In addition to rejecting the president’s racial gradualism, the majority of black voters also rejected the party’s policy of ‘fiscal responsibility’ or self-help. A 1963 study found that ‘underprivileged’ Americans did not find such policies appealing; this was especially true of racial minorities, since their struggles were compounded by racism and discrimination.”
Another important black Republican figure Rigueur introduces is Frederic Morrow, the first African American to hold an executive position at the White House. While working as an administrative officer for special projects under President Dwight Eisenhower, Morrow pushed his fellow Republicans to play a bigger role in the civil rights movement, a politically delicate proposition that risked alienating the GOP with white southerners. Yet Morrow also faced criticism from his fellow black voters.
“For some, anger with black Republicans is an implicit rejection of a larger accommodationist tradition,” Rigueur writes of the tension felt by activists like Morrow. “To their critics, black Republicans are Booker T. Washington’s successors, racial apologists whose affiliations and beliefs mark them as traitorous individuals, complicit in an age-old crusade to ‘delegitimize the black quest for racial and social justice.’”
Many African-Americans were upset that Eisenhower had not been more aggressive in school desegregation efforts, and Morrow was furious that the brutal murder of black teenager Emmett Till at the hands of white assailants received no condemnation from Eisenhower. However, Democrats were dealing with schisms of their own as it struggled to satisfy its segregationist wing.
Morrow’s toils as a conduit between the White House and black leaders, including brokering a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., paid off. And Helen Edmonds, a black history professor at North Carolina College was selected to deliver Eisenhower’s seconding address at Republican National Convention, a highly visible platform. In 1956, Eisenhower received 39 percent of black voters, including 34 percent in Harlem, double the tally from 1952.
Richard Nixon, vice president under Eisenhower, was seen favorably by many black voters, who appreciated, among other things, his work to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957. However, a turning point occurred on October 19 in 1960, when Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested in Atlanta for leading a civil rights protest. Rigueur reports that Morrow aggressively lobbied for candidate Nixon to work with King’s family and Atlanta authorities to garner his release. Nixon refused, worried about its signaling to southern white voters. His opponent John F. Kennedy intervened and forged a bond with the King family, securing the leader’s release and an endorsement from King, Sr. Kennedy won among blacks by a landslide, 68 percent to Nixon’s 32 percent.
However, Nixon’s figure was several multiples above what John McCain and Mitt Romney received in 2008 and 2012. Their dismal performances can be traced in part, to the ideological purity of Barry Goldwater, which proved distasteful for many black voters, Riguer argues. The 1964 election was a hinge point against the GOP, which won just 6 percent of black voters and has never recovered. According to Riguer, Goldwater “sent shockwaves through black Republicans’ ranks, motivating them to organize on a national scale in pursuit of intra-party reform.”
Praised as a standard-bearer for conservative principles, Goldwater condemned the “dehumanizing trend” of the expanding federal government. But for many blacks, government had served a humanizing role in protecting against lynching, discrimination and extreme poverty. Thurston Morton, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Richard Nixon were critical of Goldwater’s dismissal of black voters, whom Goldwater dismissed as unattainable in a 1964 speech in Atlanta.
“The problem, as the Wall Street Journal explained, was that the senator employed both rhetoric and strategy that placed black citizens on the fringes of the American political system,” Rigueur writes. “Goldwater also appeared to have no interest in wooing black voters, reasoning that the party would gain little by pursuing black voters, suggesting that they as a bloc were irreversibly lost to the Democratic Party; although not the first Republican to make this argument, the senator was among the first to do so in such a public and aggressive fashion.”
Subsequent Republican presidents Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan proved unable to break the near-monopoly on black voters held by Democrats. Rigueur argues this is because the movement has not been able to develop a message that reconciles its small-government philosophy with African-American perception that government has played a vital role in allowing black citizens to flourish.
“It has taken more than half a century to get where we are today; accordingly, any solution for winning the black vote will involve yeoman work, and hard, grueling outreach efforts at the local, state, and national level,” Rigueur concludes. “It must repair the party’s image through genuine displays of empathy; equally important, the party has to propose and create viable solutions that meet the needs of the black electorate, moving beyond a singular focus on the black middle class. This is not to suggest that the GOP ‘become’ the Democratic Party; instead, it means that the party has to be willing to commit to forging a broad-based message that takes into account conservatism and the perspectives of racial minorities and does not pit them against one another.”
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others.