Happy ‘Birther’ Day, Mr. President

As stunning as it may sound, given the right wing obsession over whether Barack Obama was really born in America, there really was a time in our nation’s history when blacks and Republicans had a solid kinship.

It was at a Republican convention in 1888 when the first vote for a black presidential candidate, the great orator Frederick Douglass, was cast by a major American political party.

Seventy years later, Jackie Robinson, whose significance in the American civil rights movement was surpassed only by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, campaigned for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race.

But on this day, the 48th birthday of the nation’s first black president (phony Kenyan birth certificates notwithstanding), the gap between the GOP and African Americans is as wide as the Pacific Ocean that laps the Hawaiian beaches where Obama played as a native-born boy.

Amazingly, 58 percent of Republicans who responded to a recent poll said they either thought Obama was not born in the United States and thus ineligible to be president, or didn’t know.

Granted, the poll was conducted by Kos, a known left-of-center organization, but you don’t have to be a liberal to see that the ties that once bound African Americans and Republicans are seriously frayed, if not snapped.

After the Civil War and Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves, blacks signed on to Lincoln’s Republican Party en masse. Indeed, Douglass would say, “I recognize the Republican party as the sheet anchor of the colored man’s political hopes and the ark of his safety.”

Blacks and Republicans would remain aligned into the 20th century until Franklin Roosevelt’s policies to lift the nation out of the Great Depression helped to loosen the bond.

It wasn’t until the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Republican party seemed to welcome whites who were disaffected with Democrats who moved through civil rights legislation that the shift became permanent.

Still, a solid cadre of black businessmen and professionals stayed with the GOP. Despite absorbing criticism from the African American community, Robinson backed Nixon in 1960 because he had worked for civil rights while vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.

But Robinson grew wary of Nixon, who refused to campaign in Harlem. By 1964, Robinson, a supporter of former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, sensed the tide was turning within the Republican Party.

Less than 80 years after Douglass had received nominating votes, Robinson tellingly wrote in his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” of the 1964 San Francisco convention: “A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP. As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

Flash forward a generation later, when Michael Steele, the chairman of the national Republican party – a black man – would apparently rather joke about luring African Americans into the GOP tent with “fried chicken and potato salad,” than disabuse members of his party of the hateful idea that the president is a Manchurian candidate.

For that matter, why haven’t elected national Republican leaders, like House Minority Leader John Boehner or his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, to step forward and say at a bare minimum, “We don’t agree with this president politically, but we find any suggestion that he is not an American citizen and thus entitled to be President to be odious and beneath contempt”?

Would Douglass, were he alive today, still say, “I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress”? I doubt it.

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