Allen West’s limited view of history

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who recently compared himself to Harriet Tubman, was on Fox News the other day raising an argument about race and politics that occasionally pops up.

“When you look at the history of the black community with the Democratic Party, you see slavery, you see segregation, you see the Jim Crow Laws, you see secession and now you see socialism which is really not beneficial to the black community.”

Now, it’s probably fair to say West doesn’t know what “socialism” means, but it’s the rest of the quote that’s interesting. As far as the right-wing Floridian is concerned, the Democratic Party’s history on race is ugly and offensive. This comes up from time to time, so let’s set the record straight.

The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to competing constituencies — southern conservative whites with abhorrent views on race, and white progressives and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled, ultimately siding with an inclusive, liberal agenda.

It wasn’t easy. As Steve Kornacki noted a while back, “When the party ratified a civil rights plank at its 1948 convention, Southern Democrats staged a walkout and lined up behind Strom Thurmond, South Carolina’s governor and (like all Southern Democrats of the time) an arch-segregationist. Running under the Dixiecrat banner, Thurmond won four Deep South states that fall.”

As the party shifted, the Democratic mainstream embraced its new role as champions of civil rights. Republicans, meanwhile, also changed.

In the wake of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, the Republican Party welcomed the white supremacists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party. Indeed, in 1964, GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform. Other than his home state, Goldwater won exactly five states in that cycle: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Whether this related to race — we’re talking about states that hadn’t backed a GOP candidate since the Civil War — is not an open question.

This was, of course, right around the time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition, leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.

In the ensuing years, Democrats embraced their role as the party of diversity, inclusion, and civil rights. Republicans became the party of the “Southern Strategy,” opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, and politicians like Helms and Thurmond. Through the ’80s and early ’90s, the Southern realignment continued, with conservatives in the region, including figures like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, making the GOP their new home.

West wants the African-American community to associate the Democratic Party with Southern conservatives who fought for segregation and Jim Crow. What West chooses to ignore is the fact that these Southern conservatives left the party and became Republicans, where they were not only welcomed with open arms, but also where they began to shape the GOP’s agenda. Indeed, it was a Republican National Committee chairman who conceded last year that his party deliberately used racial division for electoral gain for the last four decades.

West may not know this history, or perhaps hopes he hopes we don’t know this history, but either way, those are the facts.