Black Republicans have complex relationships with poor and working class blacks, to say the least. After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal politics promised to lift Americans out of the Great Depression, many black people left the Republican Party for the Democrat ticket. However, a few remained loyal to the faction that abolished slavery.
Despite the major switch, some black Republicans played noteworthy roles in the civil rights movement. For instance, baseball legend Jackie Robinson was a staunch Republican, yet the first black man to play Major League Baseball was active in the civil rights movement. Samuel C. Jackson, who worked under the Nixon administration, was also a die-hard advocate for civil rights and minorities. Even Martin Luther King, Sr. was a Republican–until he rejected President Richard Nixon in 1960.
“The decades of the 1930s-1970s are also the years most often associated with the ‘long civil rights movement, and represent decades of sustained political and social protest against legalized discrimination,'” professor Joshua Farrington, author of “Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP,” said in an interview with VIBE. “By focusing on these years [1930-1970], I was able to explore the relationship between black Republicans and the civil rights movement.”
VIBE caught up with Farrington, professor of African American Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, to find out how his book sheds light on black Republicans and their fight against civil rights.
VIBE: Explain the purpose of “Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP.”
Professor Farrington: When I first started this project, it was to understand who black Republicans were and what they believed during the mid-twentieth century. I read a number of books about contemporary black Republicans like Clarence Thomas, but couldn’t find anything published about black Republicans from the 1930s-1970s.
A secondary purpose that became apparent as I researched was the process by which black Republicans became increasing marginal and ostracized within GOP ranks by the mid- to late 1960s. As Southern Republicans and their allies within the Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican Party tried to rid the GOP of any black presence, black Republicans shifted their activism from fighting for civil rights laws to fighting for an integrated Republican Party. This fight inside the party seemed to be a particularly illuminating story, and one often not heard, to people interested in understanding both the history of today’s Republican Party as well as black politics.
You focused on black Republicans from 1930-1970. Why are those years important?
The election of Franklin Roosevelt and the implementation of his New Deal policies of economic uplift in the 1930s is when many historians and political pundits claim that black voters became Democratic en masse. However, while many historians have written with the underlying assumption that African Americans voted almost monolithically Democratic in the 1930s-1970s, I found a plethora of national, state, and local elections where black voters continued to support the GOP well after their supposed Democratic transition.
What are some key issues that separated black Republicans from black Democrats?
I’ll start by stating the key issue that united black Republicans and black Democrats: the end of legalized discrimination. Compared to today’s discord between black Republicans and black Democrats, I was surprised to see how much bipartisan unity existed between black Republicans and black Democrats, especially during the peak years of direct action protests in the 1950s and early 1960s. With rare exceptions, most black Republicans and black Democrats not only agreed in their opposition to Southern Jim Crow, segregation, and discrimination, but both sides focused most of their attention and effort to these issues.
The difference between black Republicans and black Democrats in the mid-twentieth century centered on their beliefs regarding economic policy and the welfare state. These issues were pushed to the side in the 1950s and the early 1960s, as black Democrats and black Republicans united in their effort to protest blatant, state-sanctioned discrimination. But, by the 1970s, as the civil rights movement as a whole shifted to emphasizing economic issues, the glaring differences between black Republicans and black Democrats were amplified.
Who were the Black Nationalists that Nixon courted during his election?
The Black Nationalists who were attracted to the GOP were largely drawn to its economic policies. Most notable was Floyd McKissick, the national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who saw the liberal, integrationist agenda as a failure, and instead was drawn to the self-help, capitalistic vision of the GOP. Nixon sought to reach out to conservative Black Nationalists on the basis of what he called “black capitalism.” As president, Nixon would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on providing grants, guaranteed loans, and government contracts to black-owned businesses. He also provided millions of dollars to McKissick for the creation of Soul City, North Carolina, which was seen by many conservative Black Nationalists as the future hub of black economic success, independence, and political power.
Obviously, the conservative Black Nationalist’s dream of economic independence for black America never came to fruition. In addition to structural flaws within conceptions of black capitalism and 1970s economic “stagflation,” Nixon’s successors in the White House—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan—all engaged in systemic cuts to programs centered on black-owned business endeavors.
What inspired you to tackle this topic? Why is this important to you?
As I quickly discovered through newspapers and archives, black Republicans were surprisingly active during those decades. They headed numerous local level civil rights organizations, such as local branches of the NAACP, and held influential positions within the Republican Party infrastructure in states that ranged from California to Georgia. Upon realizing the importance of black Republicans to both civil rights activism and to the development of their party, one of my main purposes in writing this book was simply to tell their story. Many of these men and women sacrificed their time, careers, and safety in their fight for civil rights. Yet, their stories have been excluded from most narratives of the movement for black equality.
What are some other areas of research that you’d like to see explored on this subject?
I’d like to see a greater emphasis in the scholarship of black Republicans relating to the diversity within its ranks. Just as not all black voters were Democrats, not all black Republicans were — or are — monolithic in their ideologies and political strategies.
What is the current state of black Republicans?
There are more black Republicans in high profile positions today than there were in the 1930s-70s. There are also significantly less black Republicans on the grassroots level, especially when compared to the 1930s through early 1960s, when rank-and-file black voters proved far more willing to vote for Republican politicians.
Can you name some prominent black Republicans that were die-hard civil rights activists?
One would be T.R.M. Howard, who had served as the head of Mound Bayou, Mississippi’s NAACP in the 1950s, and founded one of the most important organizations to the state’s civil rights movement, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. After the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, Howard made national headlines with his denunciation of the state’s white power structure. His comments drew so many threats on his life that he had to move his family to Chicago. Howard was an icon to many black Americans, and decided to run for congress in 1958 against Chicago’s venerable black congressman, William Dawson. Howard’s campaign emphasized his militancy versus Dawson’s more pragmatic style, and his campaign featured the slogan “Uncle Tom Leadership Has Got to Go.” I think many today would be shocked at a black Republican running to the left of a black Democrat in the field of civil rights. Dawson ultimately won the election, which points to the strength of Chicago’s Democratic machine in organizing black voters.
There’s been much debate as to whether or not Dr. King was a Republican. Was he?
No. Throughout his career, King consistently emphasized his partisan independence. King did vote for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, but to say that made him a Republican is to ignore his positive comments towards John F. Kennedy by the end of the election in 1960 and his vocal rejection of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.
With that said, King did come from a bastion of black Republicanism, Atlanta. His father was active in the Republican Party (except for his famous rejection of Richard Nixon in 1960), and many within the city’s middle class, ministerial leadership were Republicans. King was certainly more friendly to the GOP than black leaders from, say, Chicago or Harlem, but he was adamant in his political independence.
Black Republicans and the Transformation of the GOP is available for purchase at Amazon.com.