What Happened to the Party of ‘Lincoln and Liberty?’

What would Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky native and the first Republican president, make of his party as we celebrate his 200th birthday?

The Great Emancipator might be spinning in his tomb, according to Frank Schaeffer, an ex-Republican and Huffington Post regular.

“The Republican Party is only a step away from becoming the fringe of the fringe,” wrote Schaeffer, “a New York Times best selling author…[and] a survivor of both polio and an evangelical/fundamentalist childhood,” according to HuffPo.

Schaeffer says he gave up the GOP after it was hijacked by the likes of racial and religious bigots, anti-abortion zealots, homophobes, gun nuts, jingoists and saber-rattlers who never met a war they didn’t like. A lot of them live in my native Kentucky and even more in states farther south.

Anyway, if the current GOP is troubling Honest Abe’s immortal soul, Confederate President Jefferson Davis probably isn’t resting in peace over the election of President Barack Obama. Davis, a Kentucky-born Mississippian, was a Democrat, too. But he and most Democrats of his day believed slavery and white supremacy were heaven-ordained.

In this the bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth, the GOP is a tale of two parties: Lincoln’s and Limbaugh’s. The Republicans are largely what the Democrats used to be: the Southern-based reactionary white folks’ party.

Obama won handily nationwide. But Republican John McCain carried eight of the 11 former Confederate states.

Even if they lose, GOP presidential candidates usually win the South. But the “liberal” media usually just gives us the “what,” not the “why,” except to attribute, with little or no elaboration, the rise of the GOP in Dixie to the region’s “traditional conservatism.”

It was race that turned the white South Republican red.

When the Democrats became the party of civil rights activism in the 1960s – as the Republicans had been in the 1860s – most African Americans – heretofore partial to the party of “Lincoln and Liberty” – became Democrats. Because the Democrats came out for civil rights, most white Southerners became Republicans.

Before the Civil War, fought in 1861-1865, the South was the stronghold of a Democratic Party that favored slavery. Northern Democrats like Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – Lincoln’s spineless predecessors – kowtowed to their Southern brethren.

Because the Republicans opposed slavery, they had no support in the slave states.

Following the war, segregationist and white supremacist Southerners were the tail that wagged the Democratic dog most of the time. A majority of Yankee Democrats went along.

Southern segregationists began to lose their grip on the Democratic Party with President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s. His successor, Missourian Harry Truman, some of whose ancestors were Confederates, desegregated the armed forces in 1948.

That year, die-hard segregationists, led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, bolted from the Democrats over a pro-civil rights plank in the party’s presidential platform. Running on the “Dixiecrat” ticket, Thurmond won four Deep South states.

In the 1960s, Democratic Congresses, dominated by Northern liberals, teamed up with a Southern liberal Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, to enact landmark civil rights bills aimed at ending Jim Crow segregation and race discrimination.

When Congress approved the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thurmond became a Republican. Encouraged by Thurmond, Republican Barry Goldwater – who joined Thurmond in opposing the act — took his campaign south, appealing to anti-integration whites. He won five Southern states.

Johnson, who became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, buried Goldwater in a landslide in 1964. Even so, LBJ knew the civil rights bills would trigger a tsunami of a white backlash in his part of the country.

“We have lost the South for a generation,” the president supposedly confided in an aide. By “the South” Johnson meant white Southern Democrats.

They followed Thurmond into the GOP in droves.

In 1968, more cracks appeared in the Democratic “Solid South” when segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a Democrat, ran for president on the “American Independent Party” ticket.

In response, Republican candidate Richard Nixon adopted a “Southern Strategy” to peel white Southern votes from Wallace and make them permanent Republicans. It largely worked. Enroute to victory, Nixon bagged five ex-Confederate states to five for Wallace.

Ronald Reagan, the white South’s favorite Republican president, resurrected the “Southern Strategy.” After he was nominated in 1980, he began his campaign at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Miss. Neshoba County was a center of the Ku Klux Klan and violent white resistance to integration – including a savage triple murder of civil rights workers – two decades before.

Reagan told an all-white crowd he was for “state’s rights” – the old Southern code word for slavery and Jim Crow segregation. He denied he was pandering to racial prejudice. Southern Republicans still bristle at charges that he was.

“Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon,” Bob Herbert aptly observed in the New York Times.

When Reagan died in 2004, William Raspberry recalled in his Washington Post column that the Gipper’s Mississippi speech was “bitter symbolism for black Americans (though surely not just for black Americans). Countless observers have noted that Reagan took the Republican Party from virtual irrelevance to the ascendancy it now enjoys. The essence of that transformation, we shouldn’t forget, is the party’s successful wooing of the race-exploiting Southern Democrats formerly known as Dixiecrats. And Reagan’s Philadelphia appearance was an important bouquet in that courtship.”

Reagan pocketed 10 of the 11 former Confederate states on the way to the White House in 1980 Four years later, he ran the table.

I am sure Schaeffer, Herbert and Raspberry wouldn’t claim – I certainly wouldn’t — that every white Southerner who votes Republican is a racist. President Obama wouldn’t make such a broad-brush charge either. (I am also confident Obama would say – or maybe has said — it is wrong for an African American to vote for him only because he is black.)

But exit polls clearly showed that Obama’s support among white voters was weaker in the South than in any other region. McCain got more votes in the South than Bush did in 2004.

Obama fared worst among whites in the Southern states with the largest African American populations, wrote Alex Koppleman in Slate, the online magazine. “This election was further proof that the blacker a Southern state, the more Republican its whites,” he added.

Ironically, African Americans were an integral part of the South’s first Republican Party, one that developed in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period of the 1860s and 1870s.

The party was largely comprised of newly-freed slaves and poor whites. This bi-racial GOP dominated the Reconstruction governments. It was the most little-d democratic party the South had ever seen.

Dixie’s old GOP strove for equality among the races. It championed expanded rights for women. It supported public schools and favored making rich people pay their fair share of taxes.

Lincoln would have been proud of that GOP. So would some Republicans this 59-year-old Democrat admired in his salad days — Jake Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, Ed Brooke, Mac Mathias and even Kentucky’s own John Sherman Cooper. They-not the loutish, loudmouth Limbaugh-were the true heirs of the party of “Lincoln and Liberty.”

[ Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association-Kentucky Education Association.]

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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