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On the legacy of Jim Crow, Ted Cruz picks the wrong partisan fight

If Ted Cruz really wants to debate which party deserves to be seen as champions of civil rights, he may be disappointed where the discussion ends up.
Image: Impeachment trial of former U.S. President Donald Trump continues in Washington
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to members of the media during the fifth day of the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on Feb. 13, 2021.Erin Scott / Reuters

The Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee will hold an important hearing tomorrow: "Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote." Among the witnesses will be Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), former state Sen. Stacey Abrams (D-Ga.), and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Sherrilyn Ifill.

The need for the hearing should be obvious: Republican officials nationwide have launched the most dramatic attack on the franchise in generations. Nevertheless, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of the panel, apparently sees a degree of irony to the partisan circumstances. The Republican published a tweet this morning that read:

"Impressive candor for Senate Dems to hold a hearing on the history of Jim Crow laws. Bull Connor, Nathan Bedford Forrest (founder of KKK), George Wallace, Robert Byrd, ALL Democrats. Dems wrote Jim Crow. Sadly, they've got a lot of expertise in bigotry [and] discrimination."

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because Cruz has pushed a similar line before. Four years ago, the GOP senator told Fox News, "The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan. You look at the most racist -- you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan. The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats."

As regular readers know, we usually revisit this larger point about once a year, and in light of Cruz's cheap and misleading rhetoric, now is as good a time as any to set the record straight once more.

The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to two broad, competing constituencies: southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and white progressives and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled with this conflict for years, before ultimately siding with an inclusive, liberal agenda.

The result was a dramatic shift in both parties. After "Dixiecrats" began their exodus in 1948, and in the wake of LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Republican Party welcomed segregationists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party. Indeed, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform.

It was right around this time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition -- leaving the progressive, diverse, tolerant Democratic Party for the conservative GOP.

In the years that followed, Democrats embraced their role as the party of inclusion and racial progress, while Republicans became the party of the "Southern Strategy," opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, and politicians like Helms, Thurmond, and others.

To be sure, Cruz's surface-level understanding of history isn't entirely wrong: Southern Democrats were, for generations after the Civil War, on the wrong side of the issue. Practically all of the major segregationists of that era were Dixiecrats.

The trouble is the context and the relevance of the observation. Which matters more in contemporary politics: that segregationists were Southern Democrats or that segregationists made a new home in the Republican Party in the latter half of the 20th century?

Democrats have no reason to ignore this or sweep history under the rug: they eventually got it right, and dispatched the segregationists to the GOP, which welcomed them into the party fold. If either party has reason for embarrassment, it's the one that welcomed the segregationists, not the party that showed them the door.

If history had ended a half-century ago, Cruz might have a slightly more legitimate point. But given what we've seen over the last several decades, the more salient point is that Democrats have been part of the solution, not part of the problem, on race.

If the Texas Republican were eager to prove otherwise, he could drop his deceptive take on history and start denouncing his own party's voter-suppression efforts, including those in his adopted home state. What do you say, senator?