The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

by Leah Wright Rigueur
The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

by Leah Wright Rigueur


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The story of black conservatives in the Republican Party from the New Deal to Ronald Reagan

Covering more than four decades of American social and political history, The Loneliness of the Black Republican examines the ideas and actions of black Republican activists, officials, and politicians, from the era of the New Deal to Ronald Reagan's presidential ascent in 1980. Their unique stories reveal African Americans fighting for an alternative economic and civil rights movement—even as the Republican Party appeared increasingly hostile to that very idea. Black party members attempted to influence the direction of conservatism—not to destroy it, but rather to expand the ideology to include black needs and interests.

As racial minorities in their political party and as political minorities within their community, black Republicans occupied an irreconcilable position—they were shunned by African American communities and subordinated by the GOP. In response, black Republicans vocally, and at times viciously, critiqued members of their race and party, in an effort to shape the attitudes and public images of black citizens and the GOP. And yet, there was also a measure of irony to black Republicans' "loneliness": at various points, factions of the Republican Party, such as the Nixon administration, instituted some of the policies and programs offered by black party members. What's more, black Republican initiatives, such as the fair housing legislation of senator Edward Brooke, sometimes garnered support from outside the Republican Party, especially among the black press, Democratic officials, and constituents of all races. Moving beyond traditional liberalism and conservatism, black Republicans sought to address African American racial experiences in a distinctly Republican way.

The Loneliness of the Black Republican provides a new understanding of the interaction between African Americans and the Republican Party, and the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173641
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Series: Politics and Society in Modern America , #110
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 230,006
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Leah Wright Rigueur is assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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The Loneliness of the Black Republican

Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

By Leah Wright Rigueur


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5243-7


Running with Hares and Hunting with Hounds

"THE REPUBLICAN PARTY," MUSED AN AFRICAN AMERICAN VOTER IN THE early 1930s, "is the party for all, regardless of race, color, or creed." Added another: "It was good enough for my father and it's good enough for me." "My politics is like my religion," insisted a black Chicago resident. "I never change. I am careful about serving my Lord and voting the Republican ticket." "The Democratic party is controlled by devils from below the Mason-Dixon line," offered yet another.

For almost seventy years, such declarations accurately captured the political sentiments of nearly all African Americans. After emancipation, black voters firmly aligned with the Republican Party, supporting the GOP out of a sense of loyalty to the "great emancipator" Abraham Lincoln; even in the aftermath of Reconstruction, as the political rights of African Americans were constrained with a renewed intensity, black voters continued to see the Republican Party as the defender of civil rights. The Democratic Party, in contrast, was an intolerable political alternative, the antithesis of progressive racial reform, instituting racist policies and laws, violently suppressing black voting below the Mason-Dixon Line, and turning a blind eye to black repression. Such was the inextricable link between African Americans and the GOP that continued through the early twentieth century. As journalist Marc Sullivan observed in 1936, "Any Negro who voted Democratic was threatened with social ostracism if not bodily harm ... no respectable Negro would dream" of affiliating with a regime that celebrated white supremacy; or, as one black skeptic facetiously asked, "How can a Negro be a Democrat?"

Most black voters endorsed Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover as their presidential choice in 1932. "Hoover is like Booker T. Washington," one African American loyalist explained, "a man of God who has borne the sorrows of the world." Just four years after African Americans had rallied around the slogan "Who But Hoover?" and after more than half a century of staunch Republican support, however, something remarkable occurred. On November 3, 1936, 71 percent of black voters cast their ballots for the Democratic incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That choice would mark the beginning of a radical realignment in American politics, a change so deep and lasting that in the present era, most find it hard to believe that a majority of the black electorate ever voted for Republican presidents. But on that historical day, the visceral frustration of a still-stagnant economy was far more influential than any loyalty considerations. Disappointed with the Republican Party's failure to offer tangible solutions to their economic woes, black voters turned to the recovery and relief programs of Roosevelt's New Deal. Economics, however, was not the sole reason for African Americans departure from the "Party of Lincoln"—many also appreciated the humanitarian efforts of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an active and public advocate for racial equality.

While no one predicted the permanence of this shift toward a Democratic president, the decision of so many voters reflected a gradually mounting frustration. A growing number of African Americans argued that since the demise of Reconstruction, Republican presidents had failed, as historian Nancy Weiss describes, to "measure up to the Legacy of Lincoln." As if the despair and suffering ushered in by the Depression was not enough to question the economic conservatism of Herbert Hoover, the president also displayed a record of "disregard and disrespect" toward African Americans in his attempts to cultivate "lily-white Republicanism" within the South. In 1930 Walter White, then executive secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), decried Hoover's attitude, labeling the president as "the man in the lily-White House," clearly uninterested in the problems of African Americans and unwilling to consider legislation and "government action." Black leaders debated whether Hoover and the party's decisions came out of complacency, indifference, or a more insidious racism, but the result was clear: Republican leaders neglected both the economic and civil rights needs of black citizens; the progress of African Americans was as stagnant as the economy, with few victories in the struggle against segregation, discrimination, racial violence, and disenfranchisement. The defeat of black Republican stalwart Oscar S. De Priest at the hands of black Republican-turned-Democrat Arthur W. Mitchell in 1934 perhaps best embodied African Americans' growing disenchantment with the GOP; black voters in Chicago ousted the sole African American member of Congress after he rejected federal emergency relief and opposed tax increases for the wealthy. Time would later capture the essence of this frustrated relationship, writing, "Political gratitude is paying the GOP steadily diminished returns ... Lincoln's name ... no longer works its oldtime magic."

Thus, while the realignment of the black electorate between 1932 and 1936 was remarkable, it was not a surprise. Many African Americans were "ripe for courting" from a shrewd Democratic presidential incumbent; they also had nothing to lose by leaving the Republican Party, whereas political coalitions with northern Democrats hinted at the possibility of racial and economic progress. Moreover, the Roosevelt administration was the first administration since Lincoln's to actively minister to the needs of blacks, though many of the programs were not deliberately targeted at African Americans. Black citizens benefited from relief payments, public housing assistance, Public Works Administration (PWA) job quotas, and the initiatives of the National Youth Administration (NYA). In 1933, for instance, 35.8 percent of African Americans in urban areas in the Northeast received funds through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); just two years later the figure reached 53.7 percent. In 1937, 35,000 African Americans were enrolled in school with NYA assistance. That same year, 390,000 blacks were employed in Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects, and the PWA invested $7 million in black school construction projects in the South. In Cleveland, 92 percent of black residents received payments via either the WPA or the FERA. And as their economic fortunes rose, so too did the black vote for Franklin Roosevelt. In 1932 black voters in Cleveland gave Roosevelt 17 percent of their vote; by 1936 they offered him 61 percent. In Philadelphia, 27 percent of black voters supported the president's first bid; four years later, he earned 69 percent of their support. This increased political support was also aided by a savvy racial symbolism inherent to the Roosevelt White House; for example, the president's publicly naming of a "Black Cabinet," a group of African American advisers who consulted with various administration agency and program directors, suggested to black constituents that they would be included at the highest level of politics; in this and other actions, the administration appeared to signal that no longer would African American voices be excluded.

However, the growing frustrations and shifting votes of African Americans were not representative of a larger ideological realignment. Over the next three decades, the black electorate would be "substantially divided" as African Americans were in no way a "monolithic Democratic voting bloc." Despite Roosevelt's Black Cabinet, the Democratic Party during and immediately after the New Deal offered few bold civil rights initiatives. The programs and agencies of the New Deal were rife with discrimination; in this sense, the Republican and Democratic parties of this era did not display clear-cut differences in their civil rights policies. The result, then, was a surge in Democratic support among the black electorate but "not the total liquidation of Republican backing." The declared affiliation of black voters demonstrates the murkiness of these years; despite the sharp jump in electoral support for the Democratic Party in 1936, African Americans continued to identify as Republicans. That same year, 44 percent of black voters registered as Democrats, 37 percent registered as Republicans, and 19 percent characterized themselves as independents. By 1940, black voters claimed equal affiliation with both Republicans and Democrats with 42 percent; and in 1944, each of the major parties maintained equivalent shares, at 40 percent.

Which party you affiliated with varied widely depending on age and region. For older black voters, or individuals recently migrated from the South, it was nearly impossible to identify with the Democratic Party. As one Chicago man observed, "The colored voter cannot help but feel that in voting the Democratic ticket in national elections they will be voting to give their ... approval to every wrong of which they are victims, every right of which they are deprived, and every injustice of which they suffer." But for younger African Americans, especially those who came of "political maturity" during the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s and were a generation removed from the first wave of the Great Migration, support for the Democratic Party was just as viable as backing the Republican Party, if not more so.

Black voters also demonstrated a strong sense of political independence, along with a growing awareness of the power of their vote; thus, for most, political allegiance was fluid. In a December 1936 article on black voters' "leaning away" from party affiliations, the New York Amsterdam News proposed that "independent voting will guarantee voters recognition: candidates will be compelled satisfactorily to solicit their votes, and the voters will hold the key to elections instead of the party figureheads, as it has been in the past.... It means that split-ticket voting will be a feature of future elections." A calculating black politician also ruminated on this idea a few years later: "The Negro should divide his voting strength between the major parties," he declared. "Political solidarity is a myth." After the shift of 1936, many within the GOP sensed that African Americans would no longer be swayed by sentimental appeals or past political loyalties. In some GOP circles, this spurred new efforts to reach out to African Americans and reintegrate them into the "Party of Lincoln." For the next three decades, the Republican Party attempted a balancing act between appealing to black voters and ignoring them, depending on whether these efforts would alienate white voters. In turn, African Americans tried to decipher the most useful electoral options for achieving racial and economic equality. To better understand the great shifts across these three decades, we will focus on three figures in particular—Ralph Bunche, E. Frederic Morrow, and Barry Goldwater—whose actions offer insight into the larger trajectories of black Republican politics in modern America.

Adamant and Indifferent: Wooing the Black Vote

As the dust from the presidential election of 1936 settled, mainstream Republican leaders were disheartened to discover that the party's nominee, Alf Landon, had received only 28 percent of the black vote; in just four years, the party had lost more than 50 percent of its black supporters—losses that became the Democratic Party's gain. Democrats successfully attracted African Americans with economic relief programs and important demonstrations of racial egalitarianism, which trumped many black voters' long-standing dismay over the southern segregationist wing of the party. Publicly, enthusiasm for Franklin Roosevelt was readily visible. Speaking with the Pittsburgh Courier a few days after the election, Martha Carpenter of Nashville, Tennessee—born before the Civil War—proudly announced that she had voted for the first time in the election: "I voted for the best man," she stated. "Mr. Roosevelt." A Chicago preacher shared his excitement, declaring to his congregation, "Let Jesus lead you and Roosevelt feed you!" Republicans found themselves outmatched in their attempts to woo black voters in 1936, despite the best efforts of black party members and a few astute white party officials. The Democratic Party seated thirty-two black representatives at its national convention, picked African Americans as campaign managers, and invested nearly $500,000 into northern black outreach efforts. The returns went further than the White House—black voters also helped elect twenty African American Democrats to state legislature positions in nine northern states; attempting to explain this shift, the New York Amsterdam News accused the Republican Party of political apathy, suggesting that the party "based its hopes for Negro support on the traditional Republicanism of the race" instead of building "efficient political organizations." Perhaps most damaging of all, when pressed by black constituents to provide an economic alternative to the New Deal programs, Alf Landon delivered "feeble answers," such as his suggestion that the Roosevelt administration "takes from those who have and gives to those who have not. There is no brotherhood in the present relief set up." Talk of "brotherhood" seemed hypocritical and insincere, given that the GOP had offered no firm solutions to African Americans' plight. Moreover, as sociologist St. Clair Drake concluded, "Who was looking for brotherhood when he could get a good WPA job?"

But the 1936 campaign also highlighted tensions within the Democratic Party, namely, between the southern and northern wings of the party. Though it had attempted to "swallow" black outreach as "political expediency," the segregationist faction struggled with the national party's decision to court black voters. Tensions flared most notably during the Democratic National Convention in June 1936. Irate over the recognition of black representatives, Senator E. D. "Cotton Ed" Smith of South Carolina threatened to "boycott" the events so long as African Americans participated. The ornery delegate walked out in the middle of an invocation given by a black minister; just two years later, he resurrected what one reporter described as Smith's "traditional campaign plank: White Supremacy." In 1938 news that fifteen hundred African Americans had been allowed to vote in Texas sparked an ugly intraparty battle over the "legal right" to disenfranchise black voters.

Many white southern politicians feared that the programs of the New Deal would improve the economic and social position of African Americans, numbering the days of "lily-white" southern rule; consequently, President Roosevelt found himself tightly constrained by the southern wing of his party. Antilynching legislation was of special concern—in 1938, for instance, southern legislators launched a six-week filibuster against the Wagner–Van Nuys antilynching bill. Dismayed by the president's apparent indifference to the needs of black constituents, black newspapers railed against Roosevelt; in one article, the Chicago Defender argued that a "word" from the chief executive would have guaranteed the antilynching bill's passage. African Americans "widely interpreted" the president's silence on the matter as "opposition to the measure which was offensive to the south." Roosevelt would never pass, let alone enforce, an antilynching provision, reasoned Time, for if he did, "all the money in the Federal Treasury could not hold the already troubled South in line for him."

In these tensions and others, Republicans saw an opportunity to regain lost political ground by capitalizing on the unstable coalition politics forged by the New Deal. Black Republicans in Chicago railed against the president's failure to "dislodge southern Democrats" from matters of importance to black constituents. "If Roosevelt was such a good friend of the Negro," they scoffed, "why were southern [politicians] allowed to block antilynching legislation?" The eager politicos pledged that if African Americans supported Republican candidates and officials, the party would end "southern domination in Congress." Their criticisms were also targeted at white Republicans whose actions they construed as antiblack. For instance, they publicly berated New York congressman James Wadsworth for voting against antilynching measures; likewise, black Republican leader Robert Church of Memphis denounced local party officials as "incompetent" and "thoughtless spokesmen," for attempting to explore outreach to white southerners.


Excerpted from The Loneliness of the Black Republican by Leah Wright Rigueur. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

A Brief Note on Sources xv

Abbreviations xvii

Introduction: The Paradox of the Black Republican 1

1. Running with Hares and Hunting with Hounds 13

2. A Thorn in the Flesh of the GOP 52

3. The Challenge of Change 95

Illustration section follows page 135

4. Richard Nixon’s Black Cabinet 136

5. Exorcising the Ghost of Richard Nixon 177

6. More Shadow than Substance 220

7. The Time of the Black Elephant 261

Conclusion: No Room at the Inn 302

Appendix 311

Notes 315

Index 383

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"African American Republicans! An absurd contradiction in terms? Not so, as historian Leah Wright Rigueur tells us in her riveting, splendidly well-researched, and illuminating book. She finds many black conservatives and explains how and why they became such political contrarians."—Donald T. Critchlow, Arizona State University

"While this book offers the definitive history of African Americans in the twentieth-century Republican Party, it also tells so much more. It provides a fresh and fascinating account of activists who frequently failed to influence their own party's trajectory, but helped chart out the broader path of black neoliberalism, which continues to have a profound impact in the Obama era."—Paul Frymer, Princeton University

"No previous book has analyzed the role of African Americans in the Republican Party in such a thematically and chronologically diverse manner, and it challenges us to rethink the party's history. Developing a distinctive and interesting argument, this book is important not only for historians, but for Americans generally."—Robert Mason, University of Edinburgh

"Wright Rigueur has produced an extraordinary political and social history of the experiences of African Americans in the modern Republican Party and her book is the first to take seriously the role black elites played in the party's internecine politics. With impressive archival research and rich accounts, this book makes a major contribution to history, African American studies, and political science."—Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., Northwestern University

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