Setting the Record Straight on Jim Crow

by John Fund

Even as the nation celebrates the passage of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, some liberals are using the occasion to bash Republicans as inheriting the legacy of Jim Crow — ignoring the fact that a higher percentage of Republicans in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act than did Democrats.

President Obama recently accused the GOP of waging an all-out assault on voting rights. Speaking to a group founded by Al Sharpton, that non-paragon of racial healing, Obama claimed: “The stark simple truth is this: The right to vote is threatened today. . . . This recent effort to restrict the vote has not been led by both parties. It’s been led by the Republican party.”

Leaving aside the fact that clear majorities of both African Americans and Hispanics support voter integrity measures such as showing voter ID at the polls, Obama is using incendiary rhetoric in an area where reasonable people can disagree.

The American Civil Rights Union, a conservative group that has filed suit in favor of voter-integrity measures, has had enough of such tactics. Its leaders include former attorney general Ed Meese and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell. ACRU has just published a booklet on the real history of Jim Crow. Available for free at TheTruthAboutJimCrow.org, it sets the record straight on a hidden racial past that many Democrats would rather see swept under the carpet. While Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is constantly referenced in the media as a tool to attract white voters, less well remembered are Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the entire federal civil service; FDR’s appointment of a member of the KKK to the Supreme Court; John F. Kennedy’s apathy toward civil-rights legislation; and the rise of Robert Byrd, a former member of the KKK, to the post of Democratic leader in the Senate in the 1980s.

Is it fair to remind people of the awful historical antecedents that can lurk within a political party? The study quotes author Bruce Bartlett as asking, “If the Republican party is to bear responsibility for Joe McCarthy through all time, why doesn’t the Democratic party have to bear responsibility for a century of racist leaders?”

The majority of the ACRU study focuses on the horror of Jim Crow, which at its core was a system of state-enforced laws that relegated blacks to inferior status. When police enforcement wasn’t enough, lynchings were used to keep Jim Crow in place. At least 3,500 blacks were lynched during the Jim Crow years, and people were murdered right up through the mid 1960s.

But the political enforcement of Jim Crow was entirely in Democratic hands. The Ku Klux Klan functioned as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic party, and it was used to drive Republicans out of the South after the Civil War. Before he took up the cause of civil rights as president, Lyndon Johnson acting as Senate majority leader blocked the GOP’s 1956 civil-rights bill, and gutted Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. Democratic senators filibustered the GOP’s 1960 Civil Rights Act.

Of course, scoring historical points shouldn’t take front place in today’s civil-rights efforts. Conservative efforts to reach out to African Americans must begin with appreciation and recognition of African Americans’ history of subordination and oppression. As author David Frum put it: “Until conservatives and Republicans, who are of course predominantly non–African American, can sincerely convey that what was done to black people in this country is as real to us as it is to them . . . a relationship that is needed by both cannot begin to develop.”

In terms of issues, conservatives must continue to point out the real-life consequences to minorities of today’s failed liberal policies. In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recounted how “deeply troubled” he is over the refusal of many teachers’ unions to embrace educational reform. “At a time when only one in 10 low-income children is earning a four-year college degree and two out of three jobs of the future will require one, change is needed,” he wrote.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that some Democrats want to distract attention from their lock-step support of the status quo by waving the racial bloody flag. “The Truth About Jim Crow” reminds us of how reactionary defenses of a failed system can create damage across many generations.

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