Diagnosis for Democracy
Insights into the State of Our Union
A Blog by Rob Tenery, MD


If the Republicans Abolished Slavery, Why Do Most Blacks Vote Democratic?

By Rob Tenery, MD on August 1, 2016

“This country was never simply about civil rights. It was about the meaning of America. The kind of country we want to be. Whether this nation might fill the call of its birth. President Lincoln understood that founding promise…” President Barack Obama marking 150 years since the abolition of slavery.

During the antebellum period from 1812 to 1861, northerners opposed to slavery feared that a group of southern slaveholders was conspiring to gain control of the federal government and use it to further southern slave-holding interests. Dedicated to freedom and equal opportunity, this group of sympathetic abolitionists gathered to fight the expansion of slavery, and gave birth to the Republican Party in 1854.

The Fugitive Slave Acts were a pair of federal laws that called for the capture and return of runaway slaves within the territory of the United States. Enacted by Congress in 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act authorized local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 added further provisions regarding runaways and levied even harsher punishments for interfering in their capture. Many Northern states passed special legislation in an attempt to circumvent them.  

Shortly after he first entered politics in 1832, Abraham Lincoln joined the newly formed Whig party. The Whig party dismantled in 1856 when members became deeply divided over the issue of slavery. Lincoln joined the Republican Party, and was nominated for Senator, but lost to Stephen Douglas. After his ‘Cooper Union’ speech on the abolition of slavery, he was nominated by the Republican Party for President.

When Abraham Lincoln won the election on a platform of no new slave states, the South broke away to form the Confederacy. This marked the start of the Civil War. Due to Union measures such as the Confiscation Acts and Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war effectively ended slavery, even before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. Additionally, The Fugitive Slave Acts were formally repealed by an act of Congress in 1864.

Southern states generally sought to disenfranchise racial minorities during and after Reconstruction. From 1868 to 1888, electoral fraud and violence throughout the South suppressed the African-American vote. From 1888 to 1908, Southern states legalized disenfranchisement by enacting Jim Crow laws.

In the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement increased pressure on the federal government to protect the voting rights of racial minorities. Congress passed the first voting-rights legislation since Reconstruction: the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Further protections were enacted in the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which allowed federal courts to appoint referees to conduct voter registration in jurisdictions that engaged in voting discrimination against racial minorities.

Congress responded to rampant discrimination against racial minorities in public accommodations and government services by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson did not publicly push for the legislation at the time. His advisers warned him of political costs for vigorously pursuing a voting rights bill and he was concerned that championing voting rights would endanger his Great Society reforms by angering Southern Democrats in Congress.

After the 1964 elections, civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pushed for federal action to protect the voting rights of racial minorities. Their efforts culminated in protests in Alabama, particularly in the city of Selma. Following the public pressure demonstrated with these protests, President Lyndon Johnson, enacted the civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Act did not get to President Johnson’s desk to sign into law without significant resistance by the Southern Democrats in Congress. When the bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964, the "Southern Bloc" of 18 southern Democratic Senators and one Republican Senator launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. The most fervent opposition to the bill came from Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC): "This so-called Civil Rights Proposals, which the President has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason. This is the worst civil-rights package ever presented to the Congress and is reminiscent of the Reconstruction proposals and actions of the radical Republican Congress."

On the morning of June 10, 1964, Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) completed a filibustering address that he had begun 14 hours and 13 minutes earlier opposing the legislation. Until then, the measure had occupied the Senate for 57 working days, including six Saturdays. A day earlier, Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the bill's manager, concluded he had the 67 votes required at that time to end the debate and end the filibuster. The final tally stood at 71 to 29 with marked Republican support.

Roosevelt’s New Deal helped minorities find work, Harry Truman desegregated the military and John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation did much to take the Black movement to where it is today. But none of this would have been possible without “the abolitionists, and freed men and women and radical Republicans that kept cajoling and rabble rousing,” continued President Obama in his speech marking 150 years since the end of slavery.

With this long history of Republican support to do away with slavery and outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, why then do the majority of Blacks vote Democratic?





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