Saturday, February 14, 2015

Conscience of a Black Conservative: The 1964 Election and the Rise of the Negro Republican Assembly

Leah M. Wright

In the immediate aftermath of the election of1964, no group was more visibly alienated by the candidacy of Barry Goldwater than the black electorate. Abandoning the Republican Party enmasse, black voters cast 94 percent of their votes to Lyndon Johnson in the national election. The percentage was a stunning decrease from the 32percent Richard Nixon received in his 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy, and the 39 percent that Dwight Eisenhower amassed during his 1956re-election over Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson.

Black voters rejected Goldwater’s brand of politics for many reasons, most notably the Arizona senator’s outspoken support for states’ rights and opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Roy Wilkins, executive director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP), attempted to explain the rationale behind African Americans’ anti-Goldwater sentiment, noting that the senator’s stance was akin to leaving civil rights in the hands of Alabama Governor George Wallace or Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.3 For many, the party’s “open armed welcome” of South Carolina senator and 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom

Thurmond, was the final unpardonable offense. Reflecting on the campaign in a November 1,1964, letter to the Wichita Eagle, reader Paul McBride noted that there was terrible incongruity in allowing “the candidate of the party of Lincoln to trample the right of the Negro.”The irony of the situation was not lost on the party’s most precarious faction—black Republicans.African American loyalists were disheartened by the party’s apparent inability to support civil rights, a position that reinforced black Republicans’ historically marginal role within the organization. In Connecticut, for instance, black Republican and attorney general of Hartford William Graham adamantly refused to vote for Goldwater in the general election, arguing that the senator’s nomination was not indicative of the majority feeling on civil rights in the party. Frustrated, Graham felt he could not vote for Lyndon Johnson either on the basis of the president’s “liberal economic and foreign policy views.

For many black Republicans, endorsing Goldwater was tantamount to betraying their race. Athlete-turned-activist Jackie Robinson aggressively promoted New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as a respected alternative to Goldwater; he asserted that any black leader who demonstrated support for the nominee would lose power and influence since “The Negro is not going to tolerate any Uncle Toms in 1964.”7 Likewise, in an August 1964 editorial letter to the New York Amsterdam News, Jackson R. Champion, a black party member from New Rochelle, announced he would not join the Goldwater coalition. “Any Negro who helps the cause of Goldwater, should be declared anything but a Negro, because they will be a traitor to the Negro people.” Despite his ties to the party, Champion said he would resist the national “slap in the face” by working for the election of Johnson as if he was “being paid by the Democratic Party.

For those black individuals who remained affiliated with the party, the 1964 moment placed them in an unstable position; they were simultaneously shunned by the black community and subordinated by the Republican machine. Such a situation forced black Republicans to assert a voice and define an independent identity that addressed these seemingly irreconcilable loyalties. The Los Angeles Sentinel ruthlessly pointed out this bizarre relationship in December 1964,arguing that the election made “wishy washy Negro Republicans take open stands on topics they had skirted or about which they had double-talked for years.” Scornful tone aside, the Sentinel’ swords reveal the urgency that informed black Republican politics in the 1960s. The 1964moment—in essence, the public nadir of the Republican institution—served as a catalyst for black party members. Galvanized into action, these black Republicans fought aggressively for greater voice and recognition both within the party and within the effort to shape the future of black activism. The hallmark of their activity and ideology was the promotion of a unique agenda of racial equality and black advancement. Once reconciled with civil rights, black Republicans claimed that the “Party of Lincoln” would be uniquely suited to meet the needs of African Americans. The New York Amsterdam News highlighted the contradictions inherent to this relationship between black Republicans and their party, observing that in order to survive, the mainstream party needed to collaborate with a group it consistently scorned.

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