A Year-Round Party for Blacks

Al Franken is the host of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America Radio, which can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KTLK-AM 1150 in Los Angeles.

Cynics like to say that February was chosen as Black History Month because it’s the shortest month. But actually, it was because February is the most depressing month, coming, as it does, long into winter, with seemingly no end in sight.

Either way, we shouldn’t let it pass unnoticed. Black History Month is about more than reminding ourselves of myriad indignities that African Americans have had to suffer since they arrived on these shores in shackles. It’s also about celebrating the triumphs that have been made in the march toward racial equality and racial harmony.

I guess that’s why the Republican Party has chosen to move past the race-based voter suppression of yesteryear -- by which I mean last year -- and honor the spirit of Black History Month by unveiling its “2005 Republican Freedom Calendar: Celebrating a Century and a Half of Civil Rights Achievement by the Party of Lincoln.” Seriously. See it for yourself at

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This calendar was unrolled with a great deal of flourish, apparently the centerpiece of the GOP’s strategy to make inroads among black voters in the 21st century. To that end, every day of the year is notated with a Republican civil rights achievement.

Now, it is true that Republicans have been involved in civil rights issues for a century and a half. For the first 100 or so years, they were the party that was “for” civil rights.

Then they switched sides with the Democrats, and for half a century they’ve been more involved on the “against” side.

That’s why most of the Republican civil rights calendar’s entries mark achievements before the advent of the modern flush toilet. For instance, the entry for April 17 reads: “1823 -- Birth of Arkansas Republican Mifflin Gibbs, elected in 1873 as first African-American judge; later appointed by President William McKinley as Consul to Madagascar.”

Definitely an achievement. But not necessarily one that would convince a suspicious African American voter 130 years later that today’s Republican Party is in his corner.

It’s harder to find real achievements in the years since the Dixiecrats jumped the aisle, fleeing the old Democratic Party of Eastland, Stennis and Russell to their sunny home in the new Republican Party of Goldwater, Helms and Trent “We-Wouldn’t-Have-Had-All-These-Problems” Lott. Most entries from recent years are of the April 28 variety: “1971. Rear Admiral Samuel Lee Gravely becomes first African American to achieve Flag Rank in U.S. Navy, promoted by President Richard Nixon.” Whether Nixon knew who Rear Adm. Gravely was or whether he was aware that Gravely was black is not mentioned. Nixon, whose Southern Strategy wiped the stain of Lincoln’s legacy from the Southern GOP once and for all, is an unlikely poster boy for Republican civil rights achievement.

As lame as the calendar might at first appear (and as lame as it may remain under close examination), you can’t blame the Republicans for trying. They have to do something with their left-over money. Why not do a calendar?

Besides, Karl Rove knows the Republican Party has not just a racism problem, but a race problem. Bush still lost the black vote 88% to 11%.

Republicans might have responded to the election with some soul-searching. Bush took a promising first step by noting the gap in life expectancy between black and white men. But instead of raising the issue as a prelude to offering a solution, he used it as one of a litany of dishonest arguments for Social Security privatization.

This is typical Republican race-baiting: the cynical use of race to push an agenda.

Take the confirmation battles over Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales. When Democrats held up the confirmations for reasons (lies, torture) clearly having nothing to do with their race or ethnicity (black, Latino), Republican officeholders and commentators accused Democrats of racism. But they didn’t mention the Democrat-backed “minority confirmations” such as those of Rod Paige, Colin Powell or Mel Martinez -- or the fact that Democrats had voted to confirm 37 of Bush’s black and Latino judicial nominees, while Republicans blocked 13 of Clinton’s.

Anyone looking at Bush’s 2006 budget must wonder about the depth of the president’s commitment to black Americans, who will be disproportionately affected by the proposed cuts in food stamps, housing and community development grants, Medicaid and student loans.

Black male unemployment in many American cities, including New York, is now above 50%. If Republicans are serious about reaching these voters, they might want to start by addressing this crisis. Instead, they’ve got a calendar.

But who knows? Maybe they’re right. Most people aren’t aware that March 25 marks the 141st anniversary of the death of Congressman Owen Lovejoy (R-Ill.), an abolitionist and co-founder of the Illinois Republican Party.

A calendar that points that out could be just the silver bullet that Karl Rove is seeking.