Leah Wright-Rigueur

Leah Wright-Rigueur

Historian, Author, & Political Scholar.

Black Republicans in the Civil Rights Era

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“African-Americans should not be Republicans, nor should they be conservatives” Rigueur opens her new book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican. And yet they are.

Rigueur wanted to know why.

Consequently, she gives us a 310-page history which introduces us to figures from the obscure (Arthur Fletcher) to the notorious (Barry Goldwater); and facts unknown about the famous – both revered (Jackie Robinson) and reviled (Richard Nixon).

On first blush, Rigueur may not endear herself to her book’s subjects by calling them “lonely.” But the Harvard historian points to Clarence Thomas as having first characterized black Republicans as “lonely”; and the conservative scribe Shelby Steele who did the same.

More importantly, in her new book, Rigueur wants us to know that black Republicans haven’t just been “lonely,” they’ve been integral to the American civil rights struggle. The Kennedy School historian delved through what she estimated, in an interview with HHR, to be some 20,000 documents shedding light on some 44-years of American history. And she tells 44-years of American history through the lens of a group she maintains has had underappreciated influence.

“At times,” Rigueur writes:

“…we find not a peculiar group of blacks, desperate for white acceptance or out of touch with American realities but rather a movement of African-Americans working for an alternative economic and civil rights movement.”

That passage defines the book’s approach. Subtitled “Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power,” the book locates conservative Africans-Americans making pragmatic trade-offs, working on the American Right whilst simultaneously working to advance black interests.

At turns, both critical and laudatory, Rigueur’s narrative coins seemingly-oxymoronic concepts like “progressive conservatism,” reacquaints us with ideas which have fallen into disuse with the passage of time like “Black Capitalism,” and delivers what (to some) maybe be implausible news that the Father of Affirmative Action was a Republican.

Yet we also learn that “#NegroSpotting” at Republican conventions isn’t something that was invented by Baratunde Thurston in 2012, but black satirists have been doing that since at least the 1972 convention.

Black Capitalism was – and is – an attempt “to use economics as a way to move past traditional protest politics,” Rigueur explains. “Black capitalism is black power in the best sense of the word,” read a glossy advertisement Richard Nixon’s campaign took out in the 1968 issue of Jet magazine. And she chronicles the impressive investments made by administrations like Nixon and Fords in historically black colleges & universities, school desegregation, black businesses grants, and contracting with minority businesses at Nixon’s Inauguration and GOP functions – to the tune of billions of dollars.

Yet, when Rigueur trains her critical lens on the GOP outreach project, she explains, that the GOP has perennially suffered from a cynical strain in the party which believed as Goldwater groaned in 1964, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc,” so why bother trying to get any of it – culminating in Pat Moynihan’s infamous “benign neglect” memo.

Rigueur’s greatest achievement in this book might be offering this insightful tool to analyze the GOP: great GOP policy has often been undercut by horrendous GOP politics. Nixon was a pioneer in desegregating schools, but severely hobbled its success by undermining the political will needed to achieve it. Likewise, combating negative black stereotypes visa-vi Black Capitalism was undermined by the political strategy that spoke in terms of “law and order” and “welfare queens.” All of which, left many in Nixon’s black Cabinet “collectively searching their souls to justify their own participation” in the party.

HHR interviewed Professor Rigueur about her book. What follows are highlights of that interview.


You introduce us to lots of obscure, yet historically-important, figures in this book whom many have probably never heard of before – black Republican White advisors to Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and the RNC – names like: E. Fred Morrow, Bob Brown, Stan Scott, Helen Thomas, and Transportation Secretary Bill Coleman. A notable one is Arthur Fletcher. In a 2005 NPR interview, his granddaughter, Phyllis Fletcher, explained her father had T-shirts made which read: “Father of Affirmative Action” he handed out at speaking engagement,” and she said:
“Art Fletcher did something good for black people—something that belongs in the history books…I knew he was frustrated people didn’t know his name like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X…The T-shirts—I’m sure they’re headed for Goodwill. But with any luck someone will see one and get curious, they’ll find a computer and they’ll look up ‘The Father of Affirmative Action,’ and they’ll find the stories that made his life so frustrating [yet] so meaningful.”

Art Fletcher and Rosa Park died in the same year, why does everyone know about one but not the other?

LWR: Right. Most people know about affirmative action…but not too many people know that the Philadelphia Plan and affirmative action are birthed through the Nixon Administration and through Arthur Fletcher. I knew a little bit about affirmative action, from what I’d seen in the news, and my studies, I knew about affirmative action from the perspective of Kennedy and the Johnson Administration. But I didn’t realize just how much of an impact Richard Nixon and Art Fletcher had on the policies. I mean, Ebony called [Fletcher] the “watchdog of labor.” And they do all these spreads on him from 1969, roughly through 1975. He gets standing ovations everyone he goes. People love this man! And it was just peculiar to me how this man just kind of disappeared, along with many other people that I look at…and why no one is really paying attention to them.

HHR: Why did they recede from the national attention and limelight?

LWR: Yes. So, another one is Stan Scott – the Pulitzer Prize winner who takes the photo of Malcolm X after he’s been shot in 1965 [and was later a Nixon-Ford White House advisor]. I think it’s a combination of factors. Many of them work for Republican administrations. And you find when those administrations go out of favor, many of these men and women kind of pull back…some of them go back to law, corporate law, and non-profits. There’s also [a] tension…you don’t really know what to do with these figures. We don’t know where to categorize them. They don’t fit nicely and neatly into a quote-un-quote “box”; so…we’re not really comfortable acknowledging the role they played in modern politics or policies; especially if it’s not an antagonistic role. The other part of this is, as the people – like Art Fletcher – are doing things that are incredibly groundbreaking and progressive for civil rights there are those within their party that are doing things to undermine those very advances.

HHR: It maybe makes a little sense for these obscure figures, but much more curious are these mega-watt black celebrities who make appearances in your book – Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Lionel Hampton, even Ralph Abernathy. How is it that their involvement with the Republican Party has gotten lost to history?

LWR: Well I should confess that one of my projects in the pipeline is – to write about these black celebrities in the Republican Party. But you’re right. Everybody knows Jackie Robinson for baseball; very few people know that he is a pretty devote Republican – until he isn’t. He becomes an Independent toward the end of his life, but he still dabbles with the Republican Party; and describes himself as a “militant black Republican,” or Wilt Chamberlain who escorts Richard Nixon to Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Most people don’t know about that. This can be chalked up to a number of things. One, a lot of these black celebrities end up having pretty antagonistic relationships with very specific people in the Republican Party. This is what happens with Jackie Robinson, where he feels incredible frustrated

HHR: …after Goldwater?

LWR: No, after Nixon, who he campaigned for in ’60; but in ‘68 he says ‘I’m done.’ Well he’s not really done. But this is pretty widespread; the same thing happens with Sammy Davis, Jr. and James Brown who make these really big declarations: “It’s too much. I’m not going to be political. I’m going to remove myself from the spotlight in that respect, but privately I’m going to continue with my Republican politics. There’s also an element where their management doesn’t want people to know that they’re involved in partisan politics, because they think the damage amongst their fan base will be too high.

HHR: You said “we’re uncomfortable talking about some of their roles.’ Talk about that in terms of Black Capitalism – which dominates so much of your book – there’s some ambivalence in the way you described: this conservative/Republican alternative approach to civil rights. Blacks in business seem to get distinctly secondary treatment in our telling of the civil rights history in this country.

LWR: Ambivalence is a good word. When we talk about civil rights, we have this kind of mythological understanding…No one ever talks about King as an economic empowerment figure. Black civil rights figures, in general, are very interested in economics. Jackie Robinson is one of the founders of Freedom National Bank in Harlem, and says that black capitalism can be used as an economic empowerment tool and he looks at this bank as one way of doing it. And who puts his prize money from winning the Nobel Peace Prize in there, but Martin Luther King, Jr.? So here we have individuals that are working together – who, even though they may have radically different visions of what black economic freedom looks like – are still invested in this idea of economics as a mode of uplift. Art Fletcher actually repeats Martin Luther King’s very famous quote: what good is sitting at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

HHR: Yeah, and Michael Steele says the same in his 2006 run for Senate in Maryland: the first civil rights movement was about ability to sit at a lunch counter, the new one is about owning the whole diner.

LWR: Right, right. So part of what figures like Art Fletcher are trying to do is, they truly believe they can change the nature of black economics in this country, that it what will eradicate racism. And even though I may not agree with all the premises of that, I find it intriguing they were trying to use economics as a mode of moving past traditional protest politics, or even moving past politics. Even the language they use – Arthur Fletcher says: we need to get black people a bigger piece of the pie. We’ve been denied our piece of the pie for so many generations. So this is us getting a fair share of the pie. That’s kind of…

HHR: Radical?

LWR: Yes, that’s kind of radical language…and when he first introduces the idea in 1969, he says, if we do this according to plan, by 1980 African-Americans will be on equal playing field with the rest of the country. So it’s not about having all African-Americans out of poverty, because that’s not the nature of capitalism, but saying there should be a fair distribution, in the same way there’s a quote-un-quote ‘fair’ distribution among white Americans.

HHR: What, then, is your assessment of that argument, because in the book, as now, you definitely seem not sold on that argument?

LWR: I’m not. I have to confess that I’m not sold. The people who are enacting these plans are overly-optimistic about what their policy proposals can do. [Some] are good ideas but, then, they fail to account for things like Nixon completely undermining their policy successes, or…they underestimated the significance and depth of black American poverty or focus exclusively on a black middle class; and they assume by expanding the black middle class it’ll pay dividends for the Republican Party. And, unfortunately, what they find out is, that’s not enough. It’s just not enough.

HHR: That definitely was a central point of your book – GOP appeals being targeting at the black middle class and more-or-less ignoring the black poor.

LWR: Well that’s exactly it. Many of their appeals just ignore the black poor and black working class, which is interesting because the broader Republican Party definitely goes after the American working class. But they say [the black poor], they’re a lost cause, let’s focus on the black middle class. Clarence Towns, who’s an [African-American] Republican strategist in the 1960’s and 1970’s writes a memo to several people in the Nixon Administration in which he says, we cannot continue to ignore the black poor and working class. We have to include them in our outreach efforts…the problem here is: you also have strategist saying if we focus on the black working class are we going to lose the black middle class? the black wealthy?… I’m not sure that’s an either-or thing….Here you have [the party’s] best black strategists saying: we can focus on black working class people and make inroads, and they’re ignoring that, much to their detriment.

HHR: I’m amazed by this 1968 Jet magazine ad – which the Nixon campaign took out. The seminal line of which is, “Black capitalism is black power in the best sense of the word.” What an interesting appeal.

LWR: It’s a remarkable appeal. The first time I saw it, I had to do a double-take and say is this really the Nixon-Agnew campaign that’s making this appeal? But it makes sense. The ad is well-put-together. It looks good…the idea is for black power to run itself and operate itself and get behind this idea of personal accountability and self-determination, and local power. That’s a powerful thing that the Nixon Administration is tapping into.

HHR: Yea, as curious as that ad is on some level, you kind of square it a few pages later you quote Whitney Young [National Urban League president who worked with Nixon], saying “nobody who’s working for black people is moderate; we’re all militant is different ways.” I found that quote interesting. (Nixon would later eulogize Young at his 1971 funeral, saying: he “was not a moderate man in terms of his goals, but he knew the uses of moderation in achieving his goals”).

LWR: Right. I love that quote.

HHR: Reminds me, too, of Harold Cruse – a Marxist – writing in his books Rebellion or Revolution, “Black Power is nothing but the economic and political philosophy of Booker T. Washington, given a 1960s militant shot in the arm.”

LWR: And there’s an interview between George Schuyler [mid-century black conservative writer] and Malcolm X, he says to Malcolm X, “You know, you and I are not that different.” And, of course, everyone on that panel says absolutely not; and they move on to other topics. But, in some ways, they’re not that different. Think about what black self-determination means, what black economic power means, these kind of bootstrapping ideas, ideas about personal accountability. And I think the reason for that is there’s this very long history of black conservatism in African-American communities that is not necessarily tied to partisanship.

HHR: Finally, link for me the “law and order” discussion in your book with present-day events in the news: post-Ferguson protests, and “die-in” demonstrations, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. You talk about “law and order with justice.”

LWR: Yea, the justice part is crucial. Ed Brooke [the first elected black Senator in U.S. history] – he’s a lawyer by training – he really recognizes you can’t use the phrase “law and order” without adding on justice, because for black voters – all kind of underrepresented groups – the phrase “law and order” carries a very specific meaning. It means: repression of black bodies and black communities…it feels like a targeted-attack on African-Americans especially when none of these solution are talking about deep, deep-rooted issues in black communities. Ok, so what are the roots of riots? What are causing African-Americans to riot? What about institutionalized racism? Poor living conditions? Police brutality? …so one of the things Brooke argues is: we have to introduce notion, of justice and equality into the phrase “law and order.”

HHR: Can you tell us where you see this going from here, future lines of research?

LWR: I’m thinking the next project is going to be somewhat of a continuation of what I’m doing now, so looking at black Republicans 1981 to 1992, or so, because we have Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and they appoint a significant amount of African-Americans to high-ranking positions with their administrations.

An older version of this post appears in The Hip Hop Republican


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