During slavery days, the Democratic Party was the great defender of that tragic institution. In one particularly murderous incident, Democratic Representative Preston Brooks, a South Carolina slave-owning white supremacist, bludgeoned nearly to death Senator Charles Sumner, a Radical Republican (the "liberals" of their day) from Massachusetts, after he gave a speech denouncing slavery in 1856.
Two years later, in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Illinois Democratic Senator, Stephen Douglas stated,
"For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon Negroes, Indians and other inferior races."Yet, Douglas was too moderate on race to become his party's presidential nominee in 1860. The Democrats instead nominated a more hard-line slaver, John C. Breckinridge.
After the collapse of slavery and the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, it was the Democratic Party which undermined and then destroyed the "experiment in inter-racial democracy" we call Reconstruction. It was the Democratic Party that "redeemed" white supremacy by sweeping aside the multi-racial governments of the Reconstruction era and establishing a new system of white supremacy, the Jim Crow system, with its hundreds of laws segregating the races, with its various mechanisms to disenfranchise black voters, and with its horrific system of debt peonage, otherwise known as sharecropping. Of course, this new system of white supremacy, while backed up by laws, court decisions, tradition and custom, was ultimately backed by unspeakable violence. Black people were killed in large numbers for asserting their political, economic and social rights. And, the Democrats were the political party that countenanced this violence, stoked the passions of racial hatred and encouraged other southerners to become murderous mobs. The Ku Klux Klan was, in essence, an extension of the Democratic Party. Democrats brought back chain gangs to force black labor back to the land in the most submissive and unjust way. And, Democrats passed the first gun control laws to keep victimized African Americans defenseless in the face of this violence.
During the so-called "progressive era," it was Democratic President Woodrow Wilson who extended formal segregation throughout the federal bureaucracy and named a number of open white supremacists to his cabinet. It was Wilson, who earlier as President of Princeton, refused to admit African Americans to that school. As Governor of New Jersey, Wilson refused to grant black workers patronage even though African American votes were the margin of his victory. And, in 1915, it was President Wilson who watched a private viewing of "The Birth of a Nation," one of the most racist films of all time, and approvingly called it "History written with lightening."
Throughout his presidency, Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, consistently accommodated southern white racism in order to get other legislation passed. This meant nominating a lifetime KKK member from Alabama to the Supreme Court and replacing his Vice President, a true supporter of racial justice, Henry Wallace, with another racist and former KKK member, Harry Truman. This meant opposing federal anti-lynching legislation and thereby tolerating the torture and murder of African American citizens. It meant signing into law a Social Security Act that purposefully left out farm workers and domestic laborers, the two biggest employment categories for black people.
It was the southern Democratic Party that, until the mid-1940s, conducted "all white primaries" to block black electoral power and assure the perpetuation of white supremacy. And, because the South was a one-party region (there was no Republican Party after the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s) whoever won the Democratic nomination, won the general election!
In 1948, as some in the party began to get hip to the increasing power of black voting rights in the North, southern Democrats bolted the party and formed the racist Dixecrat, or "States Rights," Party, with South Carolina's Strom Thurmond as its standard bearer.
In 1964, it was racist Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, another KKK member, who filibustered the Civil Rights Act for 14 hours. Throughout the civil rights era, it was Democratic representatives at the local, state and federal level who provided the primary institutional bulwark against racial change.
It was the Democratic Party that produced George Wallace, the segregationist Governor of Alabama who pointed the way toward modern racist politicking when he figured out that racially-coded language could animate the underlying racist antagonisms of whites and win lots of votes, North and South, East and West.
And on and on and on...
But, you say, the Democrats are now the party of "special interests," one of those Wallace-inspired code-words for the party of black people, and brown people, and poor people and women and gays and lesbians, and anyone else who is disenfracnhised. Today, it is the Republican Party that rules the South and which is home to the most racist sentiments in our politics. Today, it is the Democratic Party that is the party of civil rights! And, this is true, to a large extent. During the 1950s and 1960s, the combination of thousands of people engaged in one of the most inspiring social movements in our nation's history and the increasingly embarrassing gap between U.S. leaders' Cold War rhetoric of "liberty," "democracy" and "self-determination" and the domestic reality of rampant and violent white supremacy, compelled liberal Democrats to embrace civil rights and, in the process, alienate southern white racists. In turn, those former Southern white racist Dems jumped ship and became Republicans. Similarly, it was those divisive racial appeals that I mentioned above which also brought over to the Republicans thousands of disgruntled working class white voters looking for a scapegoat for their own increasing economic misery due to deindustrialization and conservative social and political policies in the 1970s and 1980s. So, YES, the Democrats did ultimately make the change and embrace civil rights, not mainly because it was the moral or just thing to do, but because they were shoved by external forces (the civil rights movement and the logic of the Cold War). But, even so, that window was a brief one. As a reinvigorated and reactionary new conservative politic rose from the late-1960s through the present, Democrats found themselves increasing on the defensive. In order to try to regain political power, Democrats have moved rightward, largely abandoning the civil rights agenda of the 1960s and early-1970s. Recall that the only two Democratic presidents since the civil rights era have been conservative southern white guys. Recall, Bill Clinton picking a fight with Sister Souljah to prove he could be tough on "those people." It was Bill Clinton who saved his campaign in 1992 by going home to Arkansas to publicly preside over the state murder of a mentally deficient black man, Ricky Ray Rector, again to prove to reactionary white voters he could be "tough on crime." (note the association of crime with blackness) It was Bill Clinton who pandered to the racist smears against social welfare programs by signing into law the Welfare "Reform" Act of 1996... And on and on. He did all of this to pander to the racist sentiments still so powerful in our society so that he could win political power.
Now, let me be clear. I am a registered Democrat and an ardent Barack Obama supporter. I am not writing this to uplift Republicans and beat down the Dems. The Republicans have a pile full of their own racist sins to atone for and they don't seem to be showing any signs of change anytime soon. Rather, I merely hope to set what is happening through the Obama campaign within a much longer trajectory of racist politics in our country. White supremacy has always been a foundational set of values and ideas in our society and politics. It has historically been the NORM, not the exception to the rule. In this context, Obama's victory is H-U-G-E and inspiring on a grander scale.
So, today, as we reflect on the meaning of Barack Obama's nomination for President on the Democratic Party ticket, let us be conscious of this long and terrible racial history. Let us be aware of the truly seismic triumph over a horrible past that this represents within the party. Let us be clear of the magnitude of what has already happened in this election, regardless of what is to come in the general election. Let us give thanks and praises to the most high for this historic turn of events...
Viewed through the lens of racial justice and history, Barack Obama's triumph in the Democratic Primary is deep and resonant and somewhat mind-blowing. Let us all take a few moments before we jump into the general election fight to reflect on this deeper meaning. Let us all be proud of what Obama's candidacy means...