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Correcting Rand Paul on the GOP's Troubling Civil Rights Record

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently spoke to students at Howard University in an effort to reach minority voters. During the interview Mr. Paul revealed a troubling lack of concern for history regarding the Republican Party's record on civil rights. The purpose of this piece is to set the record straight.

Paul stated as a matter of fact that the GOP has always been the party of civil rights, a common talking point on the right. A simple history of America's political realignments tells a very different story.

When President Abraham Lincoln said that the Republicans had lost the South, he was right. The Civil War and Reconstruction left the South resentful of the North and of the GOP, the party of Lincoln, the dictator. It became known as the "Solid South" because the states of Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas became a stronghold for the Democratic Party. Because these states had long traditions of racism which meant that the Democratic Party by extension also had a tradition of racism. A consequence of the Civil War was that the Republicans controlled the political frame.

That all changed when the stock market crashed in 1929 due to out of control lending on Wall Street, and the combination of uninsured, unregulated banks and the lack of a safety net transformed an ordinary recession into what we know as the Great Depression. People lost their entire savings and had no way of recovering the losses. Republican president Herbert Hoover's limited response did little to ease the suffering of the American people which cost him the election, and had an even farther reaching impact on the GOP in general. When Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted his New Deal legislation, reassuring citizens that the government was acting on their behalf, the political frame shifted in favor of the Democrats. These policies became especially popular in the rural South -- southerners liked the New Deal but only wanted it to extend to whites. This was the start of a Democratic realignment. It would take the Republicans until the Gingrich Revolution to retake the House.

But if there's one thing politics teaches us its that nothing lasts forever. On February 2, 1948, Democratic President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in a special announcement to Congress, calling for the desegregation of the armed services. "Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense..." he began, "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." The message had a different meaning to southerners: their party was abandoning them.

Two Republicans, Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, realized the potential in the South and saw an opportunity to resurrect their party. They began what became known as the Southern Strategy, using coded language like "states' rights" to subtly appeal to the fears and prejudices of southern white conservatives and oppose the civil rights movement. The response was undeniable: Goldwater, in his presidential bid, became the first Republican to win all of the electoral votes in the South since Reconstruction. At the Democratic National Convention in 1948, the "Dixiecrats" as the southern Democrats became known, walked out when Hubert Humphrey injected civil rights into the platform. The realignment had begun. It would have culminated with Richard Nixon's presidency, but the Watergate Scandal postponed the cultural shift until Ronald W. Reagan was elected president.

Reagan himself used the same kind of coded racism as his predecessors. During his infamous speech to an all-white crowd Nashoba County Fair, where three civil rights workers had been killed in the '60s, he reiterated an old anti-civil rights rally cry: states' rights. But his use of race as an electoral ace-in-the-hole didn't stop there. He used the images of the "welfare queen," a fat black woman using babies to get welfare checks, and the "strapping young buck" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps to stir white resentment toward blacks.

After Reagan's term was up, George H.W. Bush ran for president. In charge of his campaign was Republican strategist Lee Atwater. Atwater was unabashed in his use of the Southern Strategy. In a 1981 interview, he explained the tactic. "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N----r, n----r, n----r.' By 1968 you can't say 'n----r' -- that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites" he explained, "'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N----r, n----r."

Unsurprisingly, one of the most notorious examples of coded racism comes from a series campaign ads the Bush campaign and its affiliates ran against Michael Dukakis, which included the "Willie Horton Ad" that called Dukakis' record on crime into question because, though he did not start the prison furlough program in Massachusetts, when he was governor, William Horton, a black man on a weekend pass from prison, committed armed robbery, assault, and rape. The commercial took heat for the long still on Horton's mugshot and the fact that the convict's name was changed to "Willie," thinking it sounded more appropriate, when in reality he answered to William.

Republican racism did not end there. Virtually every Republican candidate since Nixon has made use of the Southern Strategy. The 2012 presidential election was a goldmine for examples of implied racism. Newt Gingrich referenced Reagan's "strapping young buck" when he branded President Obama the "food stamp president" because of the growth in food stamps during his presidency, even though that number was heading up well before he was elected. Rick Santorum called the president an "anti-war government n..." before stopping himself. Santorum had another gaff earlier in the campaign when he said he didn't want to make "black peoples' lives better by giving them somebody else's money." Mitt Romney kept repeating that President Obama's ideas were "foreign" to America, even going so far as to say "Nobody's ever asked to see my birth certificate," which was clearly meant to appeal to the xenophobic "Birther" movement. Then of course, there's former Texas Representative Ron Paul, Sen. Rand Paul's father, who put out a series of racially charged, bigoted newsletters for decades.

Sen. Paul himself has a shabby record on civil rights. Though he told the students at Howard University that he "never wavered" in his support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he attacked provisions of the bill that ban discrimination by private businesses and hotels, claiming that they violate property rights. In 2010, he also told an interviewer with the Louisville Courier-Journal "I don't like the idea of telling private business owners -- I abhor racism. I think it's a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant -- but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that's most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind."

An overwhelming 90 percent of blacks typically vote for the Democratic Party. President Obama won 93 percent in 2012. When Republicans claim the GOP is actually the civil rights party, the implication is that blacks do not know what is best for them. What better way to convince people you're not racist than with a statement reminiscent of the White Man's Burden?