History — if you do not know it, you are doomed to repeat it, for better or worse. However, if you can learn from it, you can avoid pitfalls and advance.
America is at a crossroads. Will Black voters be open to considering Donald Trump for president in 2020? As a former congressman and the first Black Republican elected to the House of Representatives in almost 60 years, I have some thoughts.
After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan lynched more than 5,000 unarmed Black men. There were no convictions; many times no arrests. The main objectives of these lynchings were to eliminate the Black vote and perpetuate Jim Crow — in other words, to continue racial injustice.
Today we have scores of unarmed Black men being killed at the hands of the police, requiring over $100 million in damages to be paid to victims’ families by taxpayers; again, most times there are no arrests, and in over 95 percent of cases no convictions. The objective is surely the same — and racial injustice has continued.
Back when Black Americans were first allowed to vote after the Civil War, many had a blind allegiance to the Republican Party, with nearly every known Black person voting for the party of Lincoln. The southern states were near-majority Black due to the high slave population versus the white population. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the radical Republicans from the north supported the newly freed slaves by starting Reconstruction and by keeping northern military troops in the south to help ensure fairness for Black people living among their former slave owners. It was a very difficult thing to attempt.
White southerners despised what the Republicans were forcing them to do. In 1876, the Democrats helped a Republican become president despite the Republican losing the popular vote and after their Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Tilden, fell just one electoral college vote shy of a clear victory. This moment, which is known as the Compromise of 1877, only further upset those white southerners more.
The Democrats “gave” the election to the Republican Rutherford Hayes largely in exchange for the removal of northern troops from southern states. For Black people in the south, what followed was horrific. Democrats and white people desperately wanted to return to power — and they did not want the nearly unanimous Black vote going to Republican candidates anymore. Terrorism toward Black Americans started in the south, along with Jim Crow practices. The result was the migration of millions of Black people to the north and west to escape the hatred and violence of the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers.
Back in the 19th century, nearly all Black elected officials — which numbered more than 20 Black congressman and senators — were Republican. It would have been exceedingly difficult to find any elected Black Democrat during that century.
But by 2008, when our first Black president was elected, nearly every Black person supported Barack Obama and his party; thus, you had the exact inverse.
Today, more than 95 percent of all Black elected officials in Congress and all major city Mayors are Democrat. Black people seem to believe that it is best to have all their eggs in one basket. I believe that is not smart.
There was a time when Black people were clearly not monolithic in their voting preferences. In fact, you did not know what party the major Black leaders were affiliated with, nor would they tell you. That period had its trials and tribulations but from many perspectives it was one of the greatest periods for Black Americans for passing meaningful civil rights laws, executive orders and actions (by presidents) and outstanding landmark Supreme Court decisions. From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, all of this was achieved.
We had the Brown vs. Board of Education landmark decision by the Supreme Court, while Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy used their power to integrate schools in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Congress gave us landmark legislation per civil rights bills, voting rights, and housing. President Nixon’s executive order required fairness in employment practices. These presidents knew that education and well-paying jobs would change the lives of Black people for the better.
You had the push from Black leaders across the spectrum — from the mild Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young of the NAACP and Urban League, respectively, to Malcolm X and Huey Newton of the Black Muslims and Black Panthers. Then, you had, in the middle, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. All these Black leaders were vastly different with diverse messages, but all had the same goal: equal opportunity, justice, and fairness for Black Americans.
Consequently, the Black vote was “in play” — both parties sought to win the Black vote during the 1950s and in the 1960 presidential elections. Nobody knew who would carry the Black vote ultimately. It was healthy; it was good for democracy.
Today, like the post-slavery years, if one party does not garner 90 percent of the Black vote then they are seen to have failed. But look what happened after slavery for Black people, and look at what is happening today for Black Americans. We are treated better when we are not presumed to be a monolith.
The choice for president in 2020 for the Black community should be judged on the accomplishments and visions for the future by both candidates. It should not be based on Joe Biden’s belief that if you don’t vote for him as a Black person, “you ain’t really Black”. That might be a good electoral strategy for Joe Biden, but it doesn’t make for a good democracy for Black Americans.
Former Congressman Gary Franks (CT-5, 1991-1997) was the first Black Republican elected to the US House of Representatives in nearly 60 years and is New England’s first black Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is host of the Podcast “We Speak Frankly”. Follow him @GaryFranks