The Common Good

A History Lesson for Herman Cain

482px-Herman_Cain_by_Gage_SkidmoreDear Herman,

On September 28, you actually called African-Americans "brainwashed" for their support of the Democratic Party.

Brother, please. No one took all the African-Americans in a room one day, dropped a watch and swayed it before our eyes chanting, "Voooooote Democraaaaaaat. Vooooooote Democraaaaaaat." We aren't brainwashed. We just know our history.

But maybe budget cuts struck civics lessons from your junior high curriculum, Herman. So, here's a brief refresher on party politics and race in America.

After the war of 1812, the Democratic Party was America's chief viable party. It maintained the fledgling United States' economic stability, which was largely dependent on the Southern slave-based economy. In the years leading up to the Civil War anti-slavery Democrats defected and joined other small parties. They eventually formed the Republican Party.

Abraham Lincoln was the Republican Party's choice for president in the 1860 election. The Republicans won. Soon after, the South broke off completely and formed the Confederate States of America. In response, regardless of party affiliation, most Northerners rallied to the aid of their Republican president to preserve the Union.

After the Civil War, the 1866 congressional elections gave enough power to so-called "Radical Republicans" in Congress that they overrode Democratic President Andrew Johnson's vetoes and enacted the Reconstruction period. During Reconstruction, this "Radical Republican" Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and deployed the Army to protect Southern black voting rights.

And get this, Herman. Resentful of the Republican-led Civil War victory and the party's process of "radical" change during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) the Democratic Party became the choice of the Southern elite.

Yes, Herman, you read right. Southerners flocked to the Democratic Party.

Republican General Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th president of the United States in the middle of the Reconstruction. One of his Grant's contributions was the creation of the Department of Justice, an agency created to protect the rights of all Americans -- most explicitly the freedmen during Reconstruction, with the rise of Southern vigilante lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, Herman, you read right again. A Republican president created the Department of Justice.

Reconstruction ended in 1877, with a back-room deal to settle the disputed election of 1876. In exchange for Southern Democrats' recognition of the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president, Republicans would have to withdraw all troops (a.k.a. protection for black folk) from the South and draw Reconstruction to an end.

The result was 90 years of personal, communal, and systemic horror for black families across the South. Separate water fountains, bathrooms and swimming pools humiliated black souls. Separate schools subjugated black minds. Bombed churches broke the backs of black communities. Jim Crow laws blocked black bodies from entering voting booths. And lynching sprees between 1882 and 1964 erased 3,445 images of God reflected in the faces of black men, women and children from American soil.

In response to the vicious consequences of the Compromise of 1877, nearly 7 million African-Americans migrated north to wherever the nearest trains would take them. From 1910-1970, black southerners moved north to cities such as Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. They sought peace and family and a chance to live.

In the midst of the great migration of African-Americans from south to north, another 20th century migration -- a political one -- took place among the Southern Democrats.

Crying "States rights!" throughout the 1940s, Southern Democrats belligerently blocked civil rights activists and Northern Democratic efforts to pass anti-lynching and anti-poll-tax laws through Congress.

Yes, Herman, you read it right. They tried to keep lynching legal.

They were foiled by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey who took the stage at the 1948 Democratic National Convention and declared: "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!"

A pro-civil-rights plank was adopted as part of the 1948 DNC platform. It called for federal legislation to combat lynching, school segregation, and employment discrimination.

Immediately, 35 Southern Democrats staged a walk-out of the convention. They formed the Dixiecrat Party. Its platform opposed racial integration and explicitly called for the preservation of Jim Crow laws and white supremacy. The party was short-lived and by 1950 most Dixiecrats were absorbed back into the Democratic Party.

Then Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dixiecrats defected from the Democratic Party en masse and found their new home in the heart of the Republican Party where they have ruled ever since.

African-Americans are not brainwashed, Herman. We remember. And we see the past repeating itself. Like the Dixiecrats before them, your tea-partying pals have hijacked a legitimate party and forced it to peddle policies that would effectively crush the image of God in African-American communities across the nation.

Votes are like wealth, Herman. They are not conjured. They are earned.

meLisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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