Democrats seem to enjoy seeing Republicans squirm as they try to extricate themselves from their racist past that was highlighted by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s ... Democrats seem to enjoy seeing Republicans squirm as they try to extricate themselves from their racist past that was highlighted by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s praise of the 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond. Considering their own history—and plans for the 2004 election—Democrats shouldn’t be smiling.
Because Republicans have been taking the heat lately, Democrats have been given a pass on how they’ve dealt with the issue of race. But not by me. Stop. Do not pass “go.”
The party’s first political platform, drafted in 1840, supported slavery. It said, “…all efforts by abolitionists…are calculated to lead to the most alarming and dangerous consequences, and that all such efforts have an inevitable tendency to diminish the happiness of the people, and endanger the stability and permanency of the union and ought not to be countenanced by any friend to our political institutions.”
In 1854, Democrats were still defending “the peculiar institution.” That year’s platform called for “non-interference by Congress with slavery in state and territory.” At its New York convention in 1924, Democratic delegates rejected a plank that would have condemned the Ku Klu Klan.
According to a history of the Democratic Party compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Black alternate delegates to the 1928 national convention in Houston were separated from White delegates by chicken wire.
Some of the nation’s most virulent racists have been Democrats. Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo said in 1940, “I want to make it impossible for the (Black) to vote and thus guarantee White supremacy.” Equally obnoxious remarks were uttered by Senators John Stennis and James Eastland of Mississippi; Gov. Lester Maddox of Georgia; Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus.
Just as Republican Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms (both former Democrats) were known for their White supremacy views, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia wore the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. He also joined Sen. Al Gore Sr., among others, to filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
To be fair, numerous Democrats strongly supported civil rights, even when it was unpopular. In fact, civil rights enjoyed bi-partisan support in Congress from the 1960s until the election of Ronald Reagan two decades later.
Over the years, many Democrats made Trent Lott-like errors.
Jimmy Carter, campaigning for president in 1976, expressed support for Whites who wanted to retain the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhood. He apologized five days later.
Senator Fritz Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, got into trouble while in office for referring to African Americans as “darkies,” Mexican Americans as “wetbacks” and accusing some African diplomats of cannibalism.
In an interview on the Fox television network last year, Byrd, in a misguided effort to praise the pace of racial progress said: “I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us… There are White niggers. I’ve seen a lot of White niggers in my time, if you want to use that word.” After using that word, Byrd quickly apologized.
But the problem for Democrats extends beyond rhetoric.
Bill Clinton said many of the right things as president yet awarded former Arkansas Sen. J. William Fullbright, his Democratic mentor, a Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian. Fullbright, a long-time segregationist, voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Al From, who paved the way for Clinton’s election by establishing the Democratic Leadership Council, which moved the party to the right, argues that Democrats must loosen their ties to Blacks in order to win back the White House.
From, who is still execu