January 1, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of America’s proudest and most important moments.
Sadly, it also represents the high point of the Republican Party’s relationship with African Americans.
With the now ubiquitous awareness after the losses of 2012 that the Party of Lincoln must make a greater effort to reach out to minorities, Republicans should not ignore their many past successes with the African American community. Instead, the party should highlight such past triumphs which are of equal, or likely greater political value than promises of future consideration.
During the civil rights movement, the GOP and its leadership demonstrated a strong belief in equal rights – and specifically African American advancement. For instance, in 1957 it was Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower who sent American troops in to protect nine brave African American children who sought to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, while a Democratic governor and angry mob stood in their way.
Similarly, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supported by a larger percentage of Republicans in Congress than Democrats. However, because President Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat, and Republicans seemed disinterested in taking the credit they were due, the Democratic party as a whole was credited in the African American community for the passage of the bill.
Shortly thereafter, Republicans created the Southern Strategy of targeting Southern whites who were angry about the new rights granted to African Americans. In hindsight, this became the moment that Democrats truly became the party of African Americans.
Since that time, some Republicans have attempted to help build meaningful bridges to the African American community but such instances have been largely isolated.
The party learned to win elections without these Americans and seemingly disengaged from pursuing their votes. All the while the Democrats took African American votes for granted.
This dilemma has left African American voters wondering which is worse, to be ignored or taken for granted?
The GOP should and can do better.
Republicans should make a meaningful effort to remind African Americans about the relatively poor progress they have made in American society by exclusively electing Democrats.
For instance, in public schools it is the Republicans who are the greatest advocates for school choice and meritocracy within the teachers unions. And with trade as a whole, it is Republicans who have sought to increasingly open free trade and diminish the power of labor unions who have a history of discriminating against minorities.
As trade becomes increasingly free and unions see their influenced lowered, all Americans will benefit from lower prices and increased employment opportunities. Furthermore, polls suggest that many African Americans agree with Republicans on social issues as well.
Recent history has shown that African Americans could support Republican candidates in greater numbers. Governor Mike Huckabee has often cited strong African American support as being key to his re-election as Governor of Arkansas in 2002. And President George W. Bush was able to garner double digit African American support in his 2004 re-election.
While Republicans should do a better job of communicating shared values with African Americans, they must be careful to avoid the appearance that they are pandering for votes. The problem, as was shown when Governor Nikki Haley recently appointed Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate, is that Republicans often do the right thing the wrong way. Haley mentioned four times in her comments that Scott had “earned his seat” in the Senate. The subliminal message is that she believes people of color normally don't earn what they are given.
Statements like these have left the GOP brand so damaged that African Americans often label black Republicans as “sell outs” or “corn-balls” as recently occurred with quarterback Robert Griffin III., due to the suggestion that he “might” be a Republican. And if the recent presidential election is any indicator then the GOP’s failure with African Americans has expanded to include all minority groups. This must serve as a wake-up call for Republicans.
The GOP would be well served to make a greater effort to approach minority communities by sharing their vision for a better America, one which protects traditional values and is free of budget deficits, high taxes, and over-regulation. That is a vision for America we all want, regardless of the distinction in the hyphen that precedes “American.”
A long hard look in the mirror might prove that the shadow of Lincoln could still be cast over his party these 150 years later. The next chapter of history is theirs to write.
Bradley Saft is the CEO and co-founder with Mike Huckabee of Learn Our History a company which produces films that teach American History to Children. The company’s most recent film focuses on the Civil Rights Movement.