The Radical Left Rewrites the History of Civil Rights

The general thrust of left-wing pundit Richard Cohen’s syndicated column of April 17, 2014 is an attack on Rand Paul’s (and other prospective GOP presidential candidates’) lack of experience.  Given Barack Obama’s thin résumé before becoming president – which, to his credit, Cohen acknowledges -- assailing Rand Paul’s (or Ted Cruz’s, or anyone else’s) meager public record is ludicrous.

Bad as Cohen’s attack on Paul (and others) is, his sly effort to rewrite the history of the Republican Party’s (and by implication, the Democrat Party’s) role in the struggle for blacks’ civil rights is even worse.  Unhappily, however, Cohen’s historical revisionism typifies the American left’s all-too-successful efforts to change Americans’ memories of the roles of the two major political parties on behalf of blacks’ civil rights.

Cohen’s ploy begins by noting that the late Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun – which is experiencing renewed performances on Broadway – grew up in a Republican household, due to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

He implies that, because of her growing radicalism and especially her lesbianism, she probably left the GOP.  (Someone familiar with her life and views may wonder if as an adult she were ever a Republican.)

Cohen begins overt historical revisionism by declaring that FDR “wooed” African Americans – which would surely be news to Roosevelt who needed southern segregationists’ votes for his New Deal legislation – and that “overtime Republicans abandoned them.”

Oh really?  Tell that to Dwight Eisenhower, Earl Warren, Everett McKinley Dirksen, and other Republicans who, each in his way, aided the civil rights cause.  All the while, those efforts were resisted by southern Democrat segregationists, including Al Gore, Sr. and J. William Fulbright, Bill Clinton’s mentor.  (Indeed, perhaps the most overtly racist to be president was Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who was born in Virginia, and praised D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, after viewing it in the White House.)  Leading segregationists in the 1960s, such as “Bull” Connor, George Wallace, and Lester Maddox, were Democrats.  In the days when Jim Crow was practiced with a vengeance, Republicans inside the KKK were scarce as hen’s teeth. 

Lyndon Baines Johnson is remembered for securing major civil rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when he was president.  Johnson’s record on blacks’ civil rights when he was in the Senate and especially the House of Representatives, however, was considerably less favorable.

Many people have fond memories of North Carolina’s Democrat Senator Sam Ervin for his role on the special Senate Watergate investigating committee which played a major role leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  If one looks at Ervin’s votes on civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s, however, pleasant memories quickly fade.

His admirers want us to forget that the late Robert Byrd had been an Exalted Cyclops in West Virginia’s KKK. We also forget that in the presidential election of 1960, 32% of blacks voted for Richard Nixon, that JFK was a “Johnny-come-lately” to the cause of civil rights, and that Martin Luther King, Jr.was a Republican.

None of this history turns up in Cohen’s column. Instead, he writes “[t]he Republican Party has done for homosexual rights what it did to civil rights [for blacks]. It has become the voice of recalcitrance, smoothly transitioning from opposing one form of civil rights for another.”

There’s more of this tripe, but I’ll spare readers of the American Thinker further assaults on their blood pressure.  

If Cohen’s diatribe against the GOP’s civil rights record were atypical, one might be inclined to dismiss it. Sadly, it’s not. One comes across instances of historical revisionism on this topic on a depressingly regular basis, whether the revisionism occurs in the popular culture, or more scholarly writing and speaking.

An example from popular culture is the comment by baseball great, Hank Aaron, on the day the Atlanta Braves honored him for breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record forty years ago.  Speaking to the crowd, Aaron was quoted as saying “back then [1974] racists “had hoods.  Now they wear neckties and starched shirts.”  He proceeded to make it clear that he was referring to Republicans.

One encounters essentially the same meme -- “Republicans are racists” -- larded throughout popular entertainment fare. This sentiment is especially widespread among Hollywood personalities.

One could dismiss comments like these as meaningless ruminations coming from people out of their depth. 

The recently published book, Dog Whistle Politics, by University of California, Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López, cannot be so readily discounted.  Allegedly an “expert” on American race relations, López contends that politicians, especially Republicans and the Tea Party, and “plutocrats” employ coded words -- that are understood to mean blacks -- to induce whites, especially those in the middle classes, to vote against their own self-interests.  López traces the origins of “dog whistle politics” back to George Wallace (a Democrat), Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan (Republicans, naturally).

It’s difficult to comprehend why Republicans and/or their supporters seem so disinclined to respond forcefully to these charges.  There are two lessons that GOPers and their backers do not seem to been learned about matters like these.

First, as Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, knew back in the early decades of the 20th century, “tell a lie often enough and people will believe it.”  I’m not equating Democrats with Nazis. Nevertheless, Goebbels’ observation still applies.  The lie that “Republicans are racists” has been told so often that many Americans have come to believe it.

Second, as Michael Dukakis’ experience during the 1988 presidential election campaign showed, failure to respond to what may seem -- to the Dukakis camp -- outrageous charges, such as the “Willie Horton” ad, because your side thinks they’re so ridiculous no one will believe them, makes it harder to counter them once you’ve realized their impact. 

As the experiences of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, with his “war room,” and especially candidate Barack Obama and his well-honed propaganda machine in 2008 prove:  as soon as a charge is made, counter it.

There’s even more recent evidence that rapid response to vile charges defuses them. Just after the ObamaCare bill passed in March, 2010, leftists brayed that Tea Party protesters used the “N” word when confronting John Lewis. Andrew Breitbart, knowing that the alleged incident had been caught on film, offered $100,000 to anyone who could show proof that the “N” word had been used. The money has never been collected.

Three points should be made. First, leftists rewrite the history of Republicans’ record on civil rights for blacks. Second, vile charges that “Republicans are racists” cost the GOP votes, especially among low-information voters. Third, unless, even at this late date, Republicans forcefully dispute these lies and set the record straight, they should expect to lose votes (and maybe elections) in the future.

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