The transmogrification of the Democratic Party, during the last 50 years, from racist oppressors into the great “helpers” of minorities – especially of blacks – is one of the greatest feats of political legerdemain in American history. Across the length and breadth of the land, Democrats at every political level are now lionized as minorities’ true friends in ways that Republicans can never hope to be – at least, as Democrats spin the tale. It was an amazing conversion. But was it really the change it appeared to be?
Well within my own lifetime Democrats were still known as the 3-S party – i.e., Slavery, Secession and Segregation. Southern Democrats had supported the Confederacy and the resultant Civil War. After the Confederacy lost the “war for Southern independence,” it was Southern Democrats who engineered the oppressive system of Jim-crow segregation under which freed blacks were forced to live for most of the next century. Separate drinking fountains, segregated schools, blacks at the back of the bus, whites-only hotels and restaurants, blacks limited to menial jobs in the federal Civil Service (courtesy of Woodrow Wilson), etc., etc. – all were engineered by Democrats of the solid South. As a teen in the 1950s, I remember the South – including Washington, D. C. – in exactly this way.
After the Supreme Court ordered an end to separate-but-equal public schools in 1954, it was Democrats, like Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas, who stood in the schoolhouse door to block black students. But it was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who sent troops to Little Rock in 1957 to quell racial unrest so students could attend integrated schools. No Democrat politician in the south dared to stand up for equal treatment of “negroes” (as they were then called). Democrats were completely behind Jim-crow, second-class treatment of minorities. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice says all colored people in the South were Republicans then, because only Republicans allowed them to vote. Unbelievable as it seems, even Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Republican.
I was a college senior when the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was proposed. It was only the latest in a long string of similar bills that were either voted down, filibustered to death by Southern Democrats, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness just to gain symbolic (but useless) passage. President Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Bill was opposed by most Democrats, including Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. An 84-day senate filibuster of the 1964 bill was broken only after Republican Senator Everett Dirksen publicly shamed Democrats into letting the bill come to the Senate floor for a vote. The bill’s passage marked the death-knell for legal segregation in the South.
Previously, Presidential Candidate John Kennedy shifted the Democratic Party’s stance and reputation on minority civil rights during the campaign of 1960, when he personally telephoned Coretta King, the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to express support. Dr. King was sitting in Fulton County (GA) jail on charges of trespassing and disturbing the peace stemming from lunch-room sit-ins in Atlanta. It is unclear whether JFK’s call actually got Dr. King released from a possible sentence of four months of hard labor that might have endangered his life. But the news of the call to Mrs. King was widely publicized, causing black support to swing over to JFK, and ultimately helping to elect him in November.
During JFK’s term in office, his administration supported the integration of formerly all-white colleges, including the violence-marred desegregation of Ole Miss in 1962. JFK’s brother, Bobby – then Attorney General of the USA – pressed these matters vigorously. But JFK did not approve of the great March on Washington of August 28, 1963. He declined to endorse it or make a personal appearance. A suspicion still lingers that JFK’s assassination might have been engineered by segregationists angered by JFK’s support for integration of Southern schools and his support for Dr. King’s civil-rights activism. A conversation recorded in New Orleans seemed to suggest this, but a linkage has never been proved.
Whatever the truth might have been about JFK’s assassination, President Johnson quickly capitalized on Democrats’ new-found support from minorities by pushing the1964 Civil Rights Bill against strong opposition from Southern Democrats. Southern senators filibustered the bill for 84 days. Ironically, it was Republicans who helped break the filibuster to enable passage. Fabled Senators J. William Fullbright (D-AK), Al Gore, Sr. (D-TN), Sam Ervin (D-NC), Strom Thurmond (D-SC), Robert Byrd (D-WV), and Richard Russell (D-GA) were among the 21 Democrats who supported the filibuster before cloture was finally invoked, allowing the bill to pass.
Somehow, though, the GOP’s key role in the enactment drama went down the Media Memory Hole, along with Democrats’ long identification with racism, segregation and minority oppression. In the supreme irony of ironies, it was the Texas racist from way back, Lyndon Johnson, who led Democrats into the wonderful new era of championing minority rights – truly, a switcheroo for the ages. Big Media cracked not even the trace of a smile over this amazin’ development.
Democrats took to their new role with gusto, spouting many golden promises of how they would “help” blacks gain their rightful place in American society. Many of these were the same Democrats who had striven for years to deny minorities any meaningful participation in society. Integration of schools was only the first step. Forced busing of public school students followed as a natural consequence – even in northern cities whose people thought that racism and its remedies were exclusively southern problems.
The 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s were a tumultuous era because of these changes. In Maryland, some counties closed their public schools entirely for several years to avoid integrating. Private schools accepted the white students, but blacks were left without education during that time. In other southern states, some schools would not play against schools whose sports teams were integrated. A former neighbor of mine, who played football for a DC Catholic High school in the 1950s, said their team traveled to distant Pottsville, PA, because local Virginia high schools would not take the field against their integrated squad.
Despite LBJ’s conversion to Minority Rights Champion at the federal level, Democrats at the state and local levels – particularly in the South – fought integration to the bloody last. Segregationist governors like George Wallace (D-AL), Orville Faubus(D-AK) and Lester Maddox (D-GA) tried to hold back the integration tide, but it overwhelmed them. The 1965 Voting Rights Act allowed millions of formerly disenfranchised Southern blacks to vote in state and local elections. Gradually, the country adjusted to the new reality of seeing blacks in places and roles where they hadn’t been before.
However well-intentioned some Democrats might have been in their impulse to “help” minorities, the admirable cause soon degenerated into a push for preferences, lowered standards, quotas and welfare. A simple desire to give people a chance to work, learn and achieve went off the rails. It was a great tragedy, and we are still bearing the effects of it. Indeed, it is the source of much of our political division today.
Essentially, the quest for racial equality devolved into a contention between two competing visions which I’ll call the “opportunity vision” and the “gravy-train vision.” The former seeks to let people acquire knowledge and skills that will enable them to become self-sufficient and successful in American life. The degree of success will depend on their innate abilities as well as their level of commitment and dedication to learning and to its application in some vocation. In times past, that opportunity was the most that citizens expected of their government. But the difficulty is that many are bound to be disappointed, either because they lacked ability or because they failed to apply themselves adequately to achieving success. Once we called this “real life,” but today many progressives call this a “flaw” in the Opportunity Vision.
On the other hand, the Gravy-train Vision promises people largess from the public purse, irrespective of their abilities or degree of personal effort. American minorities – especially in the South – had been disadvantaged by enduring years of an oppressive social and political system, so it was natural for some to look for government compensation. This was the kind of “help” Democrats were well disposed to furnish, and its political rewards were immediate. The gravy train got rolling as soon as Democrats stored their Klan robes in the attic and transformed themselves into minorities’ new benefactors. Not all minorities wanted this kind of help, of course, but enough did to form a powerful political bloc.
The Gravy-train Vision also invaded education, where many educators were convinced that blacks were intellectually inferior and simply could not learn at the same level as whites or Asians. How, then, could blacks obtain the academic credentials that would prepare them for advanced education and eventual entry into learned professions? Educators’ answer was to lower academic standards so blacks could receive high grades and degrees they didn’t really deserve. Colleges and universities also established quotas to guarantee “diversity” in student populations. It was dishonesty at the most basic level.
The corruption of education has been very controversial, causing numerous lawsuits over the years. Admissions quotas, especially, have become an article of educational faith almost impervious to change. Only during the past year has the Supreme Court ruled that the people of a state have the right to eliminate racial preferences in university admissions and state employment, if they choose to do so.
Liberals and conservatives have also engaged in a running “gun-battle” over the issue of educational content, with minority advocates insisting that school curricula and grading should be entirely under local control. Some have also attacked standardized tests, like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), claiming that such tests disadvantage minorities. This places college officials on the shaky ground of having only high school grades – of unknown dependability – as a measure of students’ fitness for college work. Many minorities have come to believe that standardized curricula and testing are obstacles to their academic progress. In effect, they have bought the same lie about blacks’ intellectual inferiority that racists (some of them Democrats) have always believed.
Very late in the game, colleges are recognizing that unless all students are held to the same high standards, the institution’s educational product will be devalued, and minority graduates will be vocationally crippled. Only those colleges that adhere to this stern commitment will survive.
The gravy-train as a political program actually represents racism’s final triumph. Allowed to flourish, it will cultivate a permanently dependent underclass that will never be able to gain the skills and knowledge they will need to achieve a normal, productive life in this country. Young minorities, victimized by a corrupted educational system, will be unable to enter the mainstream of American society, education, commerce and intellectual discourse. They will buy the racist lie that they cannot make it without the government’s financial help. And they will be permanently crippled by that help.
Somewhere – I won’t say where – perhaps over mint juleps and cigars, all those long-departed racists must be enjoying a good laugh about the way Democrats snookered minorities with their “help,” thereby doing far more to hold colored people down than Bull Conner or George Wallace ever did.
Do I really believe most Democrats are closet racists who still wear Klan hoods by the light of a full moon and want to hold minorities back? No, probably not most (although the late Robert Byrd (D-WV) was an unrepentant former Grand Kleagle of the Klan). But grandpa used to say, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. Actions speak louder than words. So much of Democrats’ policy has ended up hurting the very people they say they want to help. Isn’t it way past time to stop the gravy-train and try an approach that lets people to stand on their own two feet and become independent? This has to be the way to set these people free at last. In the Lord’s Providence, maybe we can finally stop hurting them.
Finally, I have to admit that I’m getting a little tired of hearing the steady drumbeat about “racist Republicans.” It’s as ridiculous as “We’re Democrats, and we’re here to help you…” Ditching the invective might be a good new start for all of us.
Once we worked together to solve hard problems in this country. Maybe we can remember how to do it again.