As a disemboweled GOP struggles to marshal an effective opposition to President Barack Obama, it can at least take heart in a singular fact: Obama’s historic election as the first African American president, and even the possibility of such a candidacy, are direct legacies of the Republican Party.
The GOP originated in the mid-19th century as a barely choate coalition of former Whigs, evangelical Christians, and New England intellectuals who had little in common save a loathing of slavery and a devotion to its demise — either by restricting its growth into the territories (the course favored by moderate Republicans) or by outright abolition (favored by the so-called radicals).
President Abraham Lincoln, initially a moderate and one of the party’s principal organizers in the West, nonetheless used the war power of the government to effect the dream of the radicals, smashing the Southern plantation class before pushing the 13th Amendment through Congress.
Ending slavery on this continent forever.
The second Republican president, Ulysses S. Grant, continued Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” by supporting and then signing into law the 15th Amendment of the Constitution (guaranteeing black suffrage in every state) and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
In addition, Grant designated the Ku Klux Klan, an anti-black terror organization which had risen from the disaffected Confederate officer corps and which had been killing hundreds of African Americans throughout the South, as “insurgents” in “rebellion against the authority of the United States.” Grant used both the federal army and the newly created Justice Department to wage a vigorous anti-Klan campaign, which effectively crippled that organization for decades.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans slowly and painfully began to enter political life as voters and as candidates, and they did so overwhelmingly as Republicans. The first African American senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels, was a Republican from Mississippi. He was followed in the Senate by Republican Blanche Bruce, also of Mississippi. In the House, every African American congressman from the election of John Willis Menard (R-Louisiana) in 1868 until the turn of the century was a Republican. The first African American governor, P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana, was also a Republican.
The Republican Party was also on the vanguard of the 20th century civil rights movement. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose leadership was instrumental in striking down segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, was an appointee of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower also signed into law the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, the first significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Like Grant and Lincoln before him, Eisenhower faced considerable Democratic opposition in all his civil rights struggles; and like Lincoln and Grant before him, he was undeterred and used the power of the federal government to enforce civil rights laws — in 1957, he deployed soldiers from the 101st Airborne to secure desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
More famous, of course, is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was in fact coauthored, introduced, and vigorously promoted by Republican Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen successfully marshaled his caucus behind the bill. Twenty-seven of 33 Republicans voted in favor, without which support it could not have passed as nearly half the Democratic caucus voted against. Dirksen received praise from both Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson, both of whom recognized Dirksen’s crucial contributions to the civil rights struggle.
Nor has Republican advocacy on behalf of black people been limited to our shores. As his presidency was winding down, Republican George H.W. Bush ordered 25,000 United States troops into war-torn Somalia. The first contingent of Marines arrived in December of 1992, spearheading a desperate international effort to deliver food and medical aid to the starving and brutalized inhabitants of Mogadishu and its environs.
Eleven years later his son, President George W. Bush, announced in his 2003 State of the Union address the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, aimed largely at combating the disease in Africa. This plan represented both a quantitative as well as qualitative leap in U.S. foreign medical aid, which had previously been limited to one off and stop-gap measures such as vaccinations and medical equipment. According to the Washington Post:
Bush’s program is fundamentally different. So far it has purchased vast quantities of antiretroviral drugs and supported day-to-day medical care for more than 1.4 million people whose survival depends on continued treatment.
Think about that staggering fact: nearly one and a half million Africans are alive today because of George W. Bush. And in July 2008, President Bush signed legislation to continue and expand his AIDS relief program, committing the U.S. to spending over $40 billion to fight AIDS and other communicable diseases in Africa over a five-year period.
None of this is to take away from the contributions Democrats have made to civil rights, especially in the last 40 years. But the fact remains that the GOP has promoted the liberation, enfranchisement, and health of black people at home and abroad from the beginning of its century-and-a-half history.
And while it is true that Democrat Barack Obama is the first black president, it is also true that that accomplishment would not have been possible without the party of Lincoln.