MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell gets his facts wrong

Normally I'd give MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell's points for honesty. Like Vermont's U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, O'Donnell has made no bones about the fact he's a socialist. Take it or leave it, O'Donnell tells you where he's coming from.

He may not be the only socialist on MSNBC. But O'Donnell tells you straight-up that's who he is. Good for him.

It's truly astonishing, therefore, to find the host of The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell getting so many important facts wrong on a major subject of American history: the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960's and '70's. In particular, O'Donnell flat out, err, lies about the role of the Republican Party in the legal destruction of the Jim Crow regime in the American South.

Where does this come from? It's not like O'Donnell didn't live through that era. He was born in 1951 - three years before Brown vs. Board of Education. He was in high school in the 1960's, in college in the '70's. What happened to Lawrence O'Donnell's memory?

I think I have a clue.

To begin, here's  Lawrence O'Donnell's indictment of the GOP, posted just in time for sharing on Facebook during the recent observance of the Martin Luther King Holiday:

"What did liberals do that was so offensive to the Republican Party? I'll tell you what they did.

"Liberals got women the right to vote.

" Liberals got African Americans the right to vote.

"Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty.

"Liberals ended segregation.

"Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act.

"Liberals created Medicare.

"Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act.

"What did Conservatives do?

"They opposed them on every one of those things, every one.

"So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, "Liberal," as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won't work, because I will pick that label up and wear it as a badge of honor."

Now, there are actually two separate and independent things wrong with Lawrence O'Donnell screed.

First, his "facts" aren't facts. They're false.

Second, O'Donnell's commits the classic white liberal fallacy of condescension towards African Americans. He presumes to believe that, somehow, white liberals freed American blacks from Jim Crow. It's this condescending premise -- African Americans should owe Democrats big because Democrats, unlike the evil Republicans, set them free (as the phrase goes) -- which forms the basis of the so-called Liberal Plantation.

More on that in a minute. First, Lawrence O'Donnell's false facts.

It will be observed, preliminarily, that O'Donnell's rant turns on a sleight-of-hand. To wit, he substitutes the word "liberal" for the word "Democrat."  He also speaks of "conservatives," rather than "Republicans."


Well, because, otherwise, MSNBC's successor to Keith Olbermann couldn't bring the whole thing off with a straight face. Most of the people he brands as "conservatives" were actually Democrats.

Just take a look and see if you agree:

  • Regarding women's suffrage, the first progressive president, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, in fact, opposed giving the vote to women.


A racist Southerner, President Wilson fired African Americans from the federal employment rolls, introduced Jim Crow laws to Washington, stopped federal prosecutions of civil rights violations (including peonage) in the South and screened D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation at the White House. He also instituted a legal reign of terror against socialists, pacifists, German-Americans and others opposing America's entry into the First World War.


Wilson did later change his mind about women's suffrage. Indeed, in 1919, he played a key role in securing its passage. Yet, it was the Republican-controlled U.S. House of

Representatives which put the Nineteenth Amendment on the way to ratification. And

most of the states which ratified the Amendment were controlled by Republicans -- just as the first Western states to give the vote to women were Republican.


What retarded the success of the women's suffrage movement for many years was not Republican opposition. It was the cause's linkage to African American suffrage -- a cause Democrats vehemently opposed.


  • It was Chief Justice Earl Warren (a former Republican governor of California and Vice Presidential candidate) who led the U. S. Supreme Court in 1954 to strike down the 1893 precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson permitting "separate but equal" accommodations for blacks and whites. It was Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower who used the United States Army in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to desegregate the high school. The government leaders who were opposing desegregation were Democrats.


  • In 1957, a Republican Senate under President Eisenhower also passed the first Civil Rights Act of the modern era. Among other things, it created the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.


  • During the 1950's and '60's, it was primarily Republican federal judges nominated by President Eisenhower who issued injunctions desegregating schools, stores, universities and public transportation and accommodations across the South.


  • Since 1868, the GOP has supported African American suffrage.


During the Reconstruction era, Republicans ran on a platform which said "now is the Negro's hour," while the Democrats' platform was "this is a white man's country." As chronicled by Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism dean Nicholas Lemann in Redemption: the Last Battle of the Civil War (2006), it was Democrats who waged a successful insurgency across the former Confederacy in the 1870's to force the withdrawal of federal troops, the overthrow of Republican state governments and an end to Reconstruction. The result, as the title of Douglas A. Blackmon's 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning book makes clear, was Slavery by Another Name.


It was Democratic President Woodrow Wilson who, as noted above, institutionalized Jim

Crow at the federal level beginning in 1913, after Democrats in one-party Southern states had already systematically deprived African Americans of their legal, civil and economic rights during the 1880's and '90's.

  • Most Republicans voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while Southern Democrats

voted against it. In fact, higher percentages of Congressional Republicans

voted for passage of the Voting Rights Act than did Democrats. Southern Democrats, of course, earlier signed the Southern Manifesto - and repeatedly filibustered proposed civil rights laws and other bills intended to eradicate racial discrimination and its consequences from American society.


  • School desegregation, including the use of forced busing to achieve racial balance, was actually carried out under the Republican Administration of President Richard M. Nixon. Southern Democrats fought busing and integration to the end. Republicans enforced it.


  • The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were passed during the Nixon Administration also. President Nixon signed the bills into law, organized and staffed the new federal agency (the EPA) and enforced the laws.


  • The first majority-African American Congressional districts were created in the re-districting after the 1990 Census, led by the DOJ of Republican President George H. W. Bush.


  • Dr. Martin Luther King, like his father and most African Americans of his time, was a Republican.


Of all the deserved tributes to Dr. King uttered on each January 17th, his party affiliation is the one which is never mentioned. Next time you're in a playful mood, tell a Democratic friend that little fact and watch what happens...And remember to stand well back.

Thus, the true facts. Now, here's the other fallacy in Lawrence O'Donnell's screed.

White liberals didn't "free" African Americans. African Americans "freed" African Americans. Not just Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy and thousands of others marching, demonstrating, staging boycotts or going to jail, but tireless trial lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's Inc. Fund and many, many more. The black churches played a central role.

African Americans, using the weapons of the Christian gospel of universal equality, non-violence and ceaseless, unremitting litigation in the courts fought, marched, suffered and, sometimes, died to set themselves free. They -- not white liberals -- own that freedom, because they and their parents -- not white liberals -- took it.  That is the central reality contradicting the false Liberal Myth which Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC and the rest peddle every Martin Luther King Day.

African Americans don't owe their freedom to white liberal Democrats.

Finally, there's an odd coincidence to this little story.

From 1989-1995, Lawrence O'Donnell was a key legislative aide to New York's U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan, as a social scientist, cared a great deal about facts. It was Senator Moynihan who famously said that, while we are all entitled to our own opinions, we're not entitled to our own facts.

Apparently, Lawrence O'Donnell was out of the room when Senator Moynihan said that.

Too bad.  Maybe as penance, O'Donnell should read Walter Russell Mead's fine essay in the current American Interest on the changing meaning of the word "liberal." It's part of a continuing, important series by Professor Mead on the on-going collapse of what he calls "blue America."

I hope this makes Lawrence O'Donnell feel blue.

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