NPR’s Robert Siegel talks with historian Leah Wright Rigueur, whose book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, explores the history of the relationship between African-Americans and the Republican Party.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
At that meeting that Donald Trump held in New York this morning, black Republican leaders were also at the table. Trump has been making a concerted pitch to African-Americans over the past couple of weeks. Nowadays when a Republican presidential candidate makes a pitch for black votes, the most common interpretation is that it’s done with little expectation of winning over very many. It’s more about showing moderate, white voters that the party is inclusive and would welcome black support.
Well, that’s very different from the way it was a hundred years ago and even more recently. Historian Leah Wright Rigueur has written about blacks and Republicans, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Oh, thanks for having me on.
SIEGEL: And from the time of Lincoln and abolition and reconstruction, African-Americans, at least those who could vote, typically voted Republican. When did that end?
RIGUEUR: Right around 1936, African-Americans wildly changed their voting patterns – really two big reasons – one, race and, two, economics. And so for the first time, African-Americans are really included under the header of the New Deal within these policies and programs that affect their day to day lives.
Not only that. You have a first lady and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House who is doing all kinds of things and speaking out very publicly about civil rights. So this combination of civil rights symbolism and economic incentives really compels black voters to say farewell to the party of Lincoln.
SIEGEL: Even though the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt happened also to be the party of white, Southern, segregationist Democrats.
RIGUEUR: I think it’s important to keep in mind that through the 1930s and well into the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the vast majority of African-American voters are Northern African-American voters, so the dynamics are slightly different. In the cases where African-Americans do vote, are not disenfranchised from voting in the South, they tend to vote Republican because of Southern segregationists.
And so in the times where we see larger cross-sections of African-Americans identifying with the Republican Party during this period, it tends to be because they’re punishing the Democratic Party for not controlling the segregationists within their midst.
SIEGEL: Well, flash forward to the 1950s and ’60s. Were Republicans still getting a respectable share of the black vote?
RIGUEUR: So well into the 1950s and 1960s, Republicans are still getting a healthy cross-section of the black vote. 1956 – Eisenhower gets about 40 percent of the black vote, and a lot of this comes from Brown v. Board of Education and also the Democratic Party’s failure to, again, address the problem of segregationists within their midst.
1960 – even as Richard Nixon stumbles on the issue of Martin Luther King, he still manages to get about a third of the black vote in the 1960 presidential election. Jackie Robinson very famously campaigns for Richard Nixon that year, and I think it’s reflective of kind of this diversity of black political thought during this that lasted well into the 19 – early 1960s.
SIEGEL: 1964 – in that year, the overwhelming majority of Republican senators voted for the Civil Rights Act, and the GOP proceeded to nominate for president one of the few who didn’t, Barry Goldwater – a turning point.
RIGUEUR: That is a watershed moment in the history of this relationship between African-Americans and the Republican Party. Everything that the Republican Party does up until that moment, anything that is associated with civil rights largely is undermined and compromised by the fact that the party nominates a senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act.
Now, we can talk about, say, the, you know, the reasons for why he voted against the Civil Rights Act. But the truth is for black voters who were second-class citizens in the United States, there is no rational explanation for denying them their constitutional rights. Even as we’re looking at somebody like Barry Goldwater, what he does is that he opens the door for segregationist – Democratic segregationists to join the Republican Party.
So this is where we begin to see a shift, and as we see a shift, we also begin to see a shift of African-Americans out of the Republican Party in astonishing levels.
SIEGEL: Leah Wright Rigueur is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and she’s the author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.” Thanks for talking with us.
RIGUEUR: Oh, thanks for having me on.