Party Switch Myths: Republicans and the Civil Rights Era by Garrett Smith

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In today’s age, many on the left consistently argue that the Democratic Party – not the Republican Party – was the party of Civil Rights during the 1960s. Supposedly, they say, the parties switched platforms, and Republicans became the evil racists, while the Democrats retracted from their racist ways and became the champions of civil rights. Because this has been a prevailing narrative for quite some time, it would be easy for anyone who is not well-read on the subject to believe cherry-picked “facts.” A deeper dive into this topic reveals that Republicans – even though they too had many faults – were the true champions of civil rights during the 1960s; not the Democrats.

What you were taught: During the 1960s, Republicans and Democrats switched platforms. Democrats became the civil rights champions, pushing through numerous pieces of civil rights legislation.

Reality: Both major civil rights of the 1960s (’60 and ’64) were signed by a larger percentage of senate Republicans than Democrats.

The 1960 Civil Rights Act, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is very rarely mentioned by the left. If we look at the facts and data, we understand why. Just three years earlier, Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, to integrate the school. This occurred after Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus – a Democrat – continued to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ruled school segregation as unconstitutional. The Little Rock Schoolboard had decided to follow the court’s decision, but Faubus did not, prompting Eisenhower to take matters into his own hands.

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Not one single Republican senator voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1960. Six of them chose not to vote, but 29 voted in favor. Democrats controlled the senate at this time, and therefore in number, there were more Democrats who voted in favor of the act. 42 of them voted in favor, with 18 against and five not voting. Although Democrats controlled the senate, if we look at the percentages, we see a larger percentage of Republicans in favor of the act than Democrats, with roughly 83% of Republican support, as opposed to roughly 65% of Democrat support.[1] Although Republicans lacked the numbers of the Democrats, they still voted for the bill in a higher percentage. President Eisenhower later signed the bill.

Flash forward to 1964, and the controversy over who deserves the title of “Civil Rights Champion” begins. John F. Kennedy, a moderate Democrat, supported Civil Rights during his presidency. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, the liberal who started the “Great Society” social program, is a different story. Johnson is often described by many liberals as the champion who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which supposedly followed with the subsequent “party switch.” It is true that Johnson signed the ’64 Civil Rights Act, but if we examine Johnson’s quotes, we learn his true motive.

In a meeting, Johnson stated, “These negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now that they’ve never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now, we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quite them down, not enough to make a difference.”[2] In summary, Johnson knew he had to sign the act to protect the reputation of the Democratic Party.

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The 1964 Civil Rights Act passed with roughly 80% Republican support, and only 61% Democrat support.[1] What was the reason for the lower number of Republican support when compared to the ’60 Civil Rights Act? Many of those who opposed it did so on the grounds that it violated the right of the private business owner to refuse service. Although refusing service to a person of color would be an unthinkably horrendous act, these Republicans stood firm on their stance that this act violated the constitutional rights of the private business owner. Barry Goldwater was one senator who opposed, and he has been slandered as a racist for doing so. Realistically, however, Goldwater supported numerous civil rights legislation prior to 1964, and he even helped found the NAACP chapter in his home state of Arizona.[2]

It should be clear that the GOP, though filled with the numerous flaws that come with any political party, has always been more pro-civil rights than its opposition. Although there was a larger number of Democrats to vote for the ’60 Civil Rights Act, as Democrats controlled the senate, Republicans still voted for it in a larger percentage. The ’64 Civil Rights Act, though signed by a Democratic president and opposed by several Republicans on constitutional grounds, still passed with a higher percentage of Republican support than Democrat. For decades, the Democratic Party has misled the American public on civil rights, and I say it is time to stand up to the narrative. It is time for us to teach true history and tell everyone about the true champions of civil rights.

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[1] https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2010/may/25/michael-steele/steele-says-gop-fought-hard-civil-rights-bills-196/

[2] https://freedomsjournalinstitute.org/uncategorized/urban-legend-goldwater-against-civil-rights/

[1] https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/86-1960/s284

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-relentless-conservative/the-democratic-partys-two_b_933995.html

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