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Recasting Republicans as the Party of Civil Rights

Times Staff Writer

Condoleezza Rice took the oath Friday as the first black woman to be secretary of State, then immediately reached back into history to invoke the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Her words were the latest example of President Bush and his top aides citing the Republican Party’s often-forgotten 19th century antislavery roots -- a strategy that GOP leaders believe will help them make inroads among black voters in the 21st century.

And if it reminds voters that the Democrats once embraced slavery, that’s not such a bad byproduct, strategists say.

Bush, who keeps a bust of Lincoln prominently displayed in the Oval Office, is making Civil War references a staple of his speeches promoting democracy overseas and policy changes at home. And a glossy, GOP-produced “2005 Republican Freedom Calendar,” spotlighting key moments in the party’s civil rights history, has been distributed to party officials nationwide.

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“We started our party with the express intent of protecting the American people from the Democrats’ pro-slavery policies that expressly made people inferior to the state,” Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) wrote in a letter printed on the calendar.

The letter continued: “Today, the animating spirit of the Republican Party is exactly the same as it was then: free people, free minds, free markets, free expression, and unlimited individual opportunity.”

The push also was evident during last year’s presidential campaign in the crucial state of Florida.

A Palm Beach Republican group paid for a newspaper ad that listed a raft of black Republican officeholders during the 19th century and said, “Throughout the history of America, the Republican Party has been at the forefront of the fight for civil rights.”

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The focus on the party’s past reflects the realignment goals of White House strategist Karl Rove and demonstrates that Republicans view winning a larger portion of the black vote as a major factor for success in future national elections.

As part of a sweeping plan to increase the party’s appeal to minorities -- including Latinos -- the Bush White House has aggressively courted socially conservative black preachers and their followers by stressing its opposition to same-sex marriage, by promoting school vouchers and encouraging the funding of church-based charities.

Republican strategists are aiming to win as much as 30% of the nation’s black vote in the 2008 presidential election -- an ambitious goal, given that polls have shown Bush won 11% in his reelection last year and that Democrats remain widely viewed as the party of civil rights.

Democrats say that such lofty GOP goals are the stuff of fantasy for a party out of touch with most black voters.

“The Republicans are running the risk of spinning themselves,” said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “African Americans are not going to be swayed by glossy calendars or references to century-old leaders.”

Historians note that the GOP’s heritage is more complex than all the references to Lincoln imply.

In the decades following the Civil War, the party became more identified with pro-business policies than civil rights.

In national elections, black voters began flocking to the Democratic Party in the 1930s, drawn by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

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And the Democrats gained a virtual lock on the black vote in the mid-1960s, as President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed several civil rights bills through Congress while the GOP pursued a “Southern strategy” aimed at courting white voters.

In the years that followed, Republicans led the fights against affirmative action and the creation of a national holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Referring to the GOP’s new efforts to promote its civil rights record, Yale University history professor David Blight said, “It’s appalling to me as a historian and as an American citizen. It necessitates ignoring and avoiding at least 80 years of the history of the Republican Party, that the Republican Party became the bastion of white solidarity, white comfort.”

Republicans, however, insist their true history has been obscured -- an argument encapsulated by a slogan on their new calendar.

“Celebrating a century and a half of civil rights achievement by the Party of Lincoln,” proclaims its cover, which features a large image of the 16th president.

Each date contains a blurb linking the GOP to advances in civil rights. On March 18, for instance, the calendar notes that in 1877, Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed the abolitionist Douglass to be a U.S. marshal.

On Nov. 6, 1956, King -- then a little-known Southern preacher -- cast a vote for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reelection, according to the calendar.

The calendar also notes that it was Eisenhower who appointed Earl Warren, a former Republican governor of California, to the U.S. Supreme Court. As chief justice, Warren presided over the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision declaring unconstitutional the doctrine of separate but equal schools.

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Bush repeatedly mentioned slavery during his inaugural address last week, quoting Lincoln on the subject and linking U.S. foreign policy promoting democracy abroad to a time at home when “soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty.”

“Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave,” Bush said.

At his White House news conference this week, Bush also referred to this nation’s racial battles when discussing the struggle to create a democracy in Iraq.

“I remind people that our own country is a work in progress,” he said. “We declared all people equal, and yet, all people weren’t treated equally for a century. We said, ‘everybody counts,’ but everybody didn’t count.”

Republican strategists concede that recasting the GOP as the party of civil rights is a challenge. The party, for example, boasts no black members of Congress, compared with 43 Democrats.

It was just three years ago that Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was forced to resign as the GOP’s Senate leader after saying the country might have been better off had then-segregationist Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948.

But the strategists expressed confidence that a new generation of black leaders and voters can be persuaded to view the party in a broader context.

Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, noted that many Republicans voted for civil rights legislation in the 1960s, just as the party had backed civil rights in the past.

“It wasn’t that long ago that the Republican Party was getting 90% of the black vote,” said Gillespie, who is advising the party on black outreach.

“People need to remember that politics as history is cyclical, and we’re cycling through to a point where we need to renew our historic bonds,” Gillespie said.


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