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How the Republican Party Lost the Support of African-American Voters

W.E.B. Dubois, Woodrow Wilson

Today the black man mostly likely to be elected President is Barack Obama. The tale of Colin Powell and Barack Obama leads one to search deeper into the history of African-Americans and political parties. How did the party of Abraham Lincoln, the man who emancipated blacks from the position of owned property in America, become the party of suspicion for so many African-Americans? It’s a question that is deserving of an answer because for many Americans the only black man-or woman-whom they would ever seriously consider voting for President will have to feature an “R” next to their name. A brutally large segment of the American population just simply won’t trust a black politician who is a Democrat. And, likewise, many black Democrats will immediately distrust a black Republican, accusing them-probably with just cause-as being a tool of The Man.

Following Reconstruction, it was a gimme that a former slave would support the Republican Party. The GOP was the party of liberty and quality, if not exactly fraternity. The Republican Party hastened this support by handing out federal jobs to black men as a show of continuing support. The joint support between the Republican Party and African-Americans continued almost unabated for the rest of the 19th century. It really wasn’t until Teddy Roosevelt took office upon the assassination of William McKinley that the black shift toward the Democratic Party began. For the most part, Teddy Roosevelt was still the staunch friend of the black man that his GOP predecessors had been; exploiting them, yes, but in return for the occasional carrot dangling from his big stick. One of the worst mistakes Pres. Teddy Roosevelt ever made was in discharging three companies of black soldiers following the notorious Brownsville Affair of 1906 without trial or hearing. These soldiers were not only kicked out of the Army but were denied their pensions and benefits. Booker T. Washington was moved by this outrageous miscarriage of justice to call TR to bear for being cruel and unjust despite believing him to be fair and reasonable.

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Worse than Teddy Roosevelt, however, was the fattest man to ever live in the White House, William Howard Taft. Taft was perhaps the closest thing to a purely racist President the US has ever seen. He strongly urged the purging of blacks from positions of influence within the Republican Party as he sought to make the GOP-in his own words-a “lily white” organization. Fat Willy Taft even undid one of the greatest tools the GOP had for holding onto their strong black base: he removed African-Americans from federal jobs and replaced with white people who very often had far less ability.

It was the last great white hope of leading African-Americans of the day that Woodrow Wilson would put an end to the racist policies of Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson was seen as a highly educated, very intelligent and progressive man and such leading African-America lights of the day such W.E.B. DuBois strongly supported Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Unfortunately, what DuBois and others failed to appreciate is that despite his having been President of an Ivy League college, Woodrow Wilson’s heart belonged to Dixie. Wilson had been born and raised in the heart of the slave-owning, rebel-flag waving, KKK-electing south: South Carolina. Progressive though he may have been, he had still been raised in an area where the prevailing ideology was still one that looked back fondly upon the pre-Civil War days. During Woodrow Wilson’s term, all agencies of the federal government as well the buildings in which they were housed were fully segregated. When confronted on this issue by black delegations Wilson confirmed the worst fears that African-Americans had about the new Republican Party. Wilson’s words echoed throughout the next decade until another Roosevelt came along to effectively pinch the black vote from the Republicans for good: Segregation may be imperfect, but it is the best way to avoid friction between the races. That theoretical construct would raise its ugly head for the last time in the 1950s and by then the Republicans had already all but lost any claim to its legacy as the party of Lincoln.