Why Do Blacks Vote for Democrats? MLK, JFK, and LBJ

{This is the third in the series, “Why do Blacks for Democrats?” The previous two posts are:
• Why Do Blacks Vote for Democrats? Inclusion and Diversity.
• Why Do Blacks Vote for Democrats? See Jesse Helms.}

All people live through history. Great people change it.

The course of history was changed in the 1960s. And in this case, I am talking about African Americans’ preference for the Democratic and Republican parties. Consider these statistics from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies:

Presidential Vote and Party Identificaiton of African Americans, 1956-1964

Source: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Blacks & the 2008 Democratic National Convention, page 8

As you can see, over the course of just eight years, African American support for the Republican Party practically evaporated.

How did this happen? It can be tied directly to the acts and leadership of three men: Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the leader of the Civil Rights movement; John F. Kennedy, the nation’s president from 1961 through November, 1963, when he was assassinated; and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s successor as president.

Most know who Martin Luther King, Jr, was, and probably President Kennedy as well; President Johnson, although pivotal in the passage of civil rights laws, is undoubtedly the lesser known and least revered among these three historical figures.

But they were all key players in eliminating segregation and legalized discrimination in the South. This excerpt from the book Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America, which was written by Lee A. Daniels, talks of how these three men were linked in changing the face of African American politics:

In October of 1960, less then three weeks before the presidential election, Martin Luther King Jr., already recognized as Black America’s most prominent civil rights leader, had been arrested in Georgia on a traffic technicality: he was still using his Alabama license, although by then he had lived in Georgia for three months.

A swift series of moves by the state’s segregationist power structure resulted in King being sentenced to four months of hard labor on a Georgia chain gang. He was quickly spirited away to the state’s maximum security prison, and many of his supporters, fearing for his life, urgently called both the Nixon and Kennedy camps for help.

Nixon, about to campaign in South Carolina in hopes of capturing the sate’s normally solid Democratic vote, took no action. Kennedy took swift action. He made a brief telephone call to a frantic Coretta Scott King, speaking in soothing generalities and telling her, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.”

It’s likely that Kennedy did not at that moment realize the political implications of that call. Ever the pragmatist, he had resisted the pleas of several aides throughout the campaign that he take bolder public stands on civil rights issues. The telephone call came because one aide caught him late at night after a hard day of campaigning and staff meetings as he was about to turn in. The aide, Harris Wofford, pitched it as just a call to calm King’s fearful spouse. Kennedy replied, “What the hell. That’s a decent thing to do. Why not? Get her on the phone.”

King was soon released, unharmed, due to a groundswell of pressure directed by blacks and whites in numerous quarters toward Georgia officials (Robert F. Kennedy himself, who was managing his brother’s campaign called the judge who sentenced King to prison). At the time, the white media paid little attention to the call, which suited the Kennedys fine. But it likely transformed the black vote. King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr., a dominating, fire-and-brimstone preacher with wide influence throughout Black America, had, like many black Southerners, always been a Republican and until that moment had said he couldn’t vote for Kennedy because he was a Catholic.

(But) the day his son was released from prison, the elder King thundered from the pulpit of his famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta: “I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is… He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase, and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.”

From that moment on, JFK’s bond with blacks, despite his initial tepid support for the movement, was sealed. His assassination, less than six months after proposing what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, cemented his place of honor among blacks: for years afterward, inexpensive commemorative plates with his likeness were ubiquitous in the homes of blacks across the country. And when his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, took up the civil rights cause and pushed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress, black voters moved in massive numbers to the Democratic party.

The role of Lyndon Johnson deserves a special mention. Johnson is a controversial figure in American history. He was the president during the escalation of the Viet Nam War, a war that many had viewed as America’s worst/failed war… until today’s Iraq War. His War on Poverty programs have been criticized as being part of an unwieldly and unaffordable welfare state.

But there’s no doubt that Johnson was a key player in the passage of civil rights legislation after Kennedy’s death. As noted by the History Learning Site,

After the assassination of Kennedy, Johnson felt he and Congress owed it to the late president to see his civil rights bill passed. However Johnson was warned by other Southerners that he was staking his political career on passing this bill into law.

The bill didn’t pass unhindered. There were doubters in Congress and it also had to overcome the longest obstruction in Senate history. Its final passing owed much to Kennedy, who had won over the Republican minority before his death. Johnson was sure the bill would have passed if Kennedy were still alive but that it would have been diluted like Eisenhower’s bills. Johnson must also receive credit as he devoted a staggering amount of his time, energy and political capital to ensure the passage of the bill in it original state. He used Kennedy’s Kennedy’s death, appeals to Southerner’s self- interest and his Southern background to get what has been described as the most important piece of civil rights legislation passed.

(The bill that was finally passed, known as) the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has been described by Irving Bernstein as “a rare and glittering moment in the history of American democracy”.

It soon became clear to Johnson that there were still gaps that had been left by the Civil Rights Act, but Johnson feared attempts to close them would be hindered by uncooperative Southern Congressmen. After Martin Luther King’s campaign in Selma, Alabama to get African Americans to register to vote Johnson felt he could act, reminding Americans that one individual’s disenfranchisement “undermines the freedom of every citizen”.

(This led to the passage of) the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Act had a dramatic effect on the South, changing the political complexion of the area, to make it more racially integrated.

Many believe that Johnson was able to pass the 1964 and 1965 Acts because of an exceptional set of circumstances. During his 24 years in Congress Johnson had gained unprecedented experience in getting legislation through Congress. He also had an unusual two- thirds of Congress in his favour and Congressmen felt particularly after Kennedy’s assassination that they should be righting national wrongs. Johnson was himself exceptionally persuasive and determined and had a lifelong commitment to helping the poor.

Who knows what would have happened if, on that fateful day in October 1960, Richard Nixon had taken Coretta Scott King’s call, instead of John Kennedy?

But Kennedy did take the call, and Nixon did not. The rest, as they say, is history. Never was there a clearer example of how the littlest of things can have the greatest of impact.

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