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The real party of civil rights

About once a year, the right will look to history and say the GOP is the true party of civil rights. Let's set the historical record straight.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, D-SC, gives a wave as he leaves the Senate chamber, August 29, 1957 at end of his 24 hour, 19 minute one-man filibuster against the compromise civil rights bills.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, D-SC, gives a wave as he leaves the Senate chamber, August 29, 1957 at end of his 24 hour, 19 minute one-man filibuster against the compromise civil rights bills.
About once a year, the right will roll out a stale argument: Republicans are the real party of civil rights, because Southern Democrats supported segregation during the civil-rights fights in the middle of the 20th century. National Review's John Fund walked the well-traveled ground this week.

Fund's piece was essentially an advertisement for a booklet published by the conservative American Civil Rights Union titled "The Truth About Jim Crow." "Available for free at, it sets the record straight on a hidden racial past that many Democrats would rather see swept under the carpet," Fund raved. Fund went on to invoke arguments familiar to anyone who's heard a conservative try to explain why Democrats are the real racists, reminding readers that Woodrow Wilson had a horrible record on race relations, that a larger percentage of congressional Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and that the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Jay Bookman took a closer look at the pamphlet Fund's piece was promoting, highlighting some of its more glaring errors of fact and judgment.
What's more Jamelle Bouie notes that it's curious that National Review would push this line, given its own history: "It would be nice if Fund had reckoned with National Review's early defense of segregation, including William F. Buckley's assertion that 'the cultural superiority of White over Negro' is a 'fact that obtrudes' and that 'National Review believes that the South's premises are correct.... It is more important for the community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.'"
But let's dig deeper still, highlighting the historical details and context that's invariably ignored by the right every time they broach this subject.
We talked about this over a year ago, but since it continues to come up from time to time, let's set the record straight again.
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.
As the party shifted, the Democratic mainstream embraced its new role. Republicans, meanwhile, also changed. In the wake of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, 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 GOP.
In the years that followed, Democrats embraced their role as the party of inclusion and civil rights. Republicans, meanwhile, 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 and Thurmond.
The contemporary argument from the right isn't entirely baseless -- Southern Democrats were, for generations after the Civil War, on the wrong side.
The problem, however, is with 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 sweep this history under the rug: they eventually got it right, and dispatched the racists to the GOP, which welcomed them in the party fold and slowly turned the Deep South into the party's strongest region. Indeed, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee conceded just a few years ago that his party deliberately used racial division for electoral gain for the last four decades.
If history ended in the 1960s, Fund and his allies may have a slightly more legitimate point. But given what we've seen over the last half-century, the more salient point is that Democrats have been part of the solution, not part of the problem, on race.