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The key flaw in Ted Cruz’s partisan take on civil rights history

Ted Cruz has a curious habit of periodically picking a fight over which is the true party of civil rights. He keeps losing — because reality is stubborn.


It didn’t come as too big of a surprise when the NAACP issued a travel advisory for Florida this past weekend. After all, the state’s Republican policymakers, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, have taken a series of steps related to education, voting rights and diversity programs that moved the Sunshine State in a sharply regressive direction.

A day later, however, Sen. Ted Cruz thought it’d be a good idea to admonish the civil rights organization in a tweet:

“This is bizarre. And utterly dishonest. In the 1950s [and] 1960s, the NAACP did extraordinary good helping lead the civil rights movement. Today, Dr. King would be ashamed of how profoundly they’ve lost their way.”

Yes, the far-right Republican from Texas wants Americans to believe that he knows what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be thinking right now, and the iconic leader of the civil rights movement would be “ashamed” of the NAACP. We’re apparently supposed to take Cruz’s word for it.

Not surprisingly, this generated some pushback from reality-based observers, including historian Kevin Kruse, leading the GOP senator to add that his party has a record to be proud of when it comes to civil rights.

If this sounds at all familiar, it’s a point Cruz seems to enjoy periodically emphasizing. Around this time two years ago, for example, the Texan argued that Democrats created Jim Crow. A few years earlier, the senator told Fox News, “The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.”

About once per year, I like to revisit this thesis, and now seems like as good a time as any to set the record straight.

The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to two broad competing constituencies: Southern whites with abhorrent and indefensible 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, progressive agenda.

The result was a dramatic shift in both parties. After “Dixiecrats” began their exodus in 1948, and in the wake of a Democratic president 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 national platform.

It was right around this time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition — leaving the diverse and 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 a party that largely looks the other way when GOP members attend white nationalist events.

To be sure, some elements of Cruz’s superficial take on history aren’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 60 years ago, Cruz might have a more legitimate point. But given what we’ve seen over the past several decades, the more salient point is that Democrats have been part of the solution, not part of the problem, on civil rights.

If the Texas Republican were eager to prove otherwise, he could drop his deceptive take on history, start denouncing his own party’s voter suppression efforts, and even endorse measures such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. What do you say, Senator?

This post revises our related earlier coverage.