What a difference forty-seven years makes, huh? Back in 1964 Barry Goldwater‘s campaign slogan was, “In your heart you know he’s right”. The Democrats has a snappy comeback for that one: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.” During that long ago campaign against Lyndon Johnson, he had actually proposed the idea of introducing low-level nuclear weapons into the Vietnam conflict. He had even identified himself as a staunch opponent of Lyndon Johnson‘s proposed civil rights bill. So extreme did Goldwater appear to most Americans all those decades ago, the very thought of him serving so-much-as-a-single-day as commander-in-chief was enough to give every thinking person the dry heaves.
To quote the Monkees: “That was then, this is now.”
Truth be told, Goldwater – when compared to his present day, ideological heirs – is starting to look pretty good in hindsight. 1964 was the year that the kooks and fools began to take hold of the “party of Lincoln”. He had to take a lot of positions during that campaign that he privately abhorred – his militant stance against equal rights for African Americans being one of them. As his post-campaign career would prove, he turned out to be a fairly decent senator in a lot of respects. He would end his life as a strong proponent of equal rights for gay people and Native Americans. Were Barry Goldwater to run as a Republican in 2010, he couldn’t get nominated as Toilet Cleaner for Yuma County Arizona.
As conservative as old Barry undoubtedly was, at the end of his life he was disgusted and alarmed at the direction his party appeared to be headed. At the time of his death on May 29, 1998, he was collaborating with John Dean on a book that decried the state of the modern-day GOP. Dean eventually completed the book a few years ago. It was called, Conservatives Without Conscience. Maybe it’s a blessing that Goldwater did not live to see Sarah Palin.
One of the newest (and most amusing) GOP talking points is that – way back when – it was the Democrats who were the enemies of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and that it never would have been passed without the Republicans. This is partially true. It was the Southern Democrats who were rabidly opposed to basic human rights for people of color that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But what is undeniable is the fact that the the right wing spin doctors have been engaging recently in a cynical bit of revisionist history. Let me begin my explanation be posing two basic questions:
QUESTION NUMBER ONE: “Were” the Republicans at least partially responsible for the success of LBJ’s Civil Rights Act in 1964?
ANSWER: Absolutely they were
QUESTION NUMBER TWO: “Are” the Republicans entitled to take credit for that fact in 2010?
ANSWER: Absolutely not.
You see, a half-century ago the Republican party was virtually nonexistent south of the Mason Dixon Line. Oh, sure, there were a few people in that region of the country who identified themselves as Republicans, but the majority of them were black - and not allowed to vote! In the former Confederacy, white people were almost exclusively registered with the Democratic party. Why you ask? Because none of these jackasses could bring themselves to register with the party of Republican Abraham Lincoln: “That nigger-lovin’ bastard that freed the slaves.” Let’s face it, a grudge is a grudge - even a century after the fact. That all changed in the mid-nineteen-sixties.
When President Johnson signed into being the Civil rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it marked the end of the “solid south” for the Democratic party. At the time, Johnson told his two aides Jack Valenti and Bill Moyers, “We’ve lost the south for a generation.” It turned out to be an optimistic prediction.
The Southern Strategy
In 1968, the Richard Nixon campaign, sensing the outrage and resentment of nearly all southern Democrats, devised a strategy to win over the hearts and minds of the nitwits who controlled that party in Dixie. Exploiting the riots that had occurred in cities all across America in the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King, Tricky Dick ran a campaign that emphasized, “Law and Order”. He didn’t actually come out and say, “I’m going to protect you good people from those nasty, filthy Negroes!” He didn’t have to. All the Trickster needed to do was rely on code words. It worked. When he was reelected in 1972, the descendants of the old confederacy had fled - like frightened rats - to the Republican party, which, by the way, was no longer the party of Abraham Lincoln, but the party of Richard Milhaus Nixon.
Now they are trying to get us to swallow the fantasy that the mass exodus of Democrats to the GOP nearly forty years ago had absolutely nothing to do with race. It was all about economics, they tell us. Bullshit. It had everything to do with race. I was born very early in the morning, but it wasn’t this morning.
What happened, quite simply, was a fusion of the economic plutocrats of the Republican north, with the racial bigots of the Democratic south. Had it not been for Nixon’s southern strategy in 1968, that coalition would never have come into existence. Had it not been for the south’s reaction to the civil rights movement, this country never would have elected a feeble-minded old reactionary like Ronald Reagan thirty years ago this November. Indeed, Reagan would launch his campaign from the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, an unremarkable tiny stain on the map whose only claim to fame prior to 1980 was the brutal murder of three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964; and shame on us if we ever forget their names:
- Andrew Goodman aged twenty
- James Cheney, aged twenty-one
- Michael Schwerner, aged twenty-four
In 1980, Ronald Reagan had a message to send the sons and daughters of Dixie who still flew the Confederate flag on their front lawns: “Jim Crow’s gonna be welcome in my White House”. And for the most part, he was. The slow-but-steady gains that black people in America had seen since that afternoon in December of 1955 – when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man, thus launching the civil rights revolution – began to falter when Reagan entered the White House in January of 1981. In Dixieland he took his stand….
The very idea of the modern-day Republican party staking a claim in the successes of the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties is (and I’m being charitable here) disingenuous at best.(Come to think about it, I’m not feeling all that charitable this morning): It’s a goddammed lie. (Much better).
So let’s all take a deep breath, shall we? These silly Republicans (in their present incarnation anyway) are about as much responsible for the gains of the civil rights era as I am for the invention of Cheese Doodles. Get a grip.