"An intriguing debate has broken out among Republican elites over how to treat black folks. On one side, you have those like Jack Kemp, the former New York congressman and 1996 Republican vice presidential candidate, who would like to break the Democratic Party's nine-to-one lock on black voters by reaching out with positive and meaningful gestures.
Kemp wrote a commentary published in late May in the conservative Human Events, the New York Sun and some other newspapers that called on the Grand Old Party to "get on the right side of history" on racial matters. He suggested two ways to do this: By extending all of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, parts of which are set to expire next year, and "by extending the voting franchise to the residents of District of Columbia," which is predominately black and lacking voting representation in Congress.
"Slander," responded conservative essayist Steven M. Warshawsky. "Mr. Kemp's article is an outrage," Warshawsky writes under the headline "Jack Kemp's White Guilt" in The American Spectator. Warshawsky does not necessarily disagree with Kemp's suggestion, but with Kemp's justification: "His premise - that the Republican Party is on the 'wrong' side of history on racial matters - is deeply flawed, both as a matter of historical fact and political philosophy." Warshawsky cites historical examples of the GOP's "strong support for black Americans" dating back to its origins before the Civil War, often with Democrats on the other side, defending slavery and segregation.
Who's right? As with many other questions of race and rights, that depends on what part of history you're talking about. Our feelings about race are based on our experiences with it, which complicates matters because each and every one of us has a unique racial experience.
My own experiences tell me that Warshawsky is right that Republicans too often get a bum rap on race, considering the heroic sacrifices many Republicans have made for racial progress. The Chicago Tribune, where I work, was founded in 1847 by Joseph Medill, who opposed slavery, helped found the Republican Party 150 years ago and support the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, who's still my favorite president.
But Kemp also is right in explaining why the GOP lost black support after the glory days of Dwight Eisenhower. As an African-American child of the Eisenhower 1950s, I have fond memories of another Republican Party, much more moderate on issues of race and other issues than the GOP we know today. The words "black Republican" would have raised eyebrows only because the label "black" was not yet in fashion. We were still "colored" in those days.
Just about everybody "liked Ike" in my little Ohio factory town, including the "colored" folks. I recall my childhood's greatest political turning point in 1957, when our little black-and-white TV screen showed Arkansas National Guard troops with bayonets on their rifles keeping black students out of Little Rock's Central High School. The next day, I turned on the news to see those same troops escorting those same black students into the high school, past jeering white mobs. What happened? "President Eisenhower must have made a phone call," my father explained. After that, I really liked Ike!
We also liked moderate Republicans like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Sen. Jacob K. Javits, also of New York, and Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black senator since Reconstruction. And we really liked Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, who rallied enough senators from both parties to overcome fierce
resistance from Southern Democratic senators like Robert Byrd of Virginia, a former Ku Klux Klansman, and Al Gore Sr., of Tennessee, father of the future vice president. Time does heal wounds - and wounds some heels.
But, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's opposition to that Civil Rights Act turned black voters heavily in favor of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and simultaneously lost Southern white voters to Johnson's party, as Johnson predicted it would. To black voters, the act of sacrificing political capital is true heroism, especially on behalf of equal rights. Soon, the Republican Party became known as the party of white flight, an image only partly redeemed in recent years by the success of high-profile black Republicans like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
With all that history in mind, I applaud Jack Kemp. Unlike some conservative zealots, he does not see government as the enemy. He sees it as a vehicle to help individual initiative and free enterprise work for everyone, even those who are still left behind in poverty, substandard housing, high unemployment and low-performing schools after the civil rights revolution.
I've often said that my family did not leave the party of Lincoln; the party left us. Folks like Jack Kemp can help it find its way back."
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
To Rescue the Party of Lincoln
A thought provoking article from columnist Clarence Page...