Black voters voting outside of the South in the wake of the Great Migration began to shift toward the Democratic Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies that tried to remedy the crisis of the Great Depression were the first real opportunities for fair employment and civil rights in decades. However, this political shift made southern segregationists increasingly uncomfortable within the national Democratic Party.
Angered by Present Harry Truman’s establishment of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and the addition of a civil rights plank to the Democratic Party Platform, a group of southern Democrats walked out of the 1948 convention and formed the State’s Rights Democratic Party, commonly known as the Dixiecrats. This segregationist party nominated South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond as its candidate for president. While the Dixiecrats won only four southern states and failed to effectively split the vote, their campaign cemented white southerners’ discontent with the national Democratic Party.
The campaign of Republicans like Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968 attracted many former segregationist “State’s Rights Democrats” to the national Republican Party and repelled the majority of the few remaining black Republican voters. Many southern Democrats like former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond switched to the Republican Party while the Republican “Southern Strategy” stoked racial resentment for electoral gain.
So a great deal has changed since Frederick Douglass voted Republican.
However, if there has ever been a moment when it would be good for the Republican Party to remember Frederick Douglass, this would be it. Perhaps these Douglass Republicans might fight for voting rights and women’s rights to contest recent moves to limit both. Perhaps a contingent of Frederick Douglass Republicans can contest the recent wave of state laws limiting access to the polls. Perhaps the Frederick Douglass Republicans can censure those who are passing new laws attacking women’s reproductive health care. A real Frederick Douglass Republican would seek to change today’s Republican party from one that seeks to limit rights, to one that is expanding them. But the conclusion of the “Trump the Race Card” session leaves me doubting.
During the question and answer period, an attendee asked why the Republican Party couldn’t embrace Booker T. Washington, who spoke in support of southern segregation, rather than Douglass. While Smith was responding to the question by citing a letter in which Douglass forgave his master for enslaving him, the attendee shouted out a comment wondering why the slaveholder needed forgiveness for “feeding and housing” Douglass for all those years.
This was the moment when Smith’s “inner Frederick Douglass” should have awakened. Douglass condemned slavery as a “gross injustice” that caused children to be “snatched from the arms of [their] mother[s]” and decried the institution as a “blasphemy” against the teachings of the Christian church. Douglass, also an avid opponent of racial segregation and a leader in the movement to contest the segregation of trains in the North, once nearly destroyed the seat of a train car as he held on to his seat in an effort to stop conductors who forcibly ejected him from the first class car and threw him in with the baggage.
Douglass was no friend to those who made excuses for slavery or segregation. He risked his life for justice and equality for all Americans. I hope that somehow the real spirit of Douglass can be revived. Given today’s political landscape, we definitely need it.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley