The GOP’s Downfall with Black Voters

In 1868, the value of the black vote first became apparent to the GOP when they gratefully voted for President Grant. Had blacks not exercised their new rights, the president would have been Democrat Horatio Seymour, whose presidential campaign was the most nakedly racist in American history. For at least 22 years, the Republican Party took an active role in protecting the rights of blacks, but this enthusiasm had begun to wane after the end of Reconstruction and really waned after the failure of the Lodge Federal Elections Bill and subsequent electoral defeats partially based on support for the measure. No serious efforts to push civil rights legislation would gain traction until 1922, and then only briefly. For 64 years, blacks voted solidly Republican, but they could be counted as a solid Democratic bloc from 1936 forward. I think there are a few major factors that ultimately lead to the downfall of the GOP in terms of black support. Warning: this is going to be a bit of a story and for a lot of people is undoubtedly tl;dr. For those people, I will sum up as this: the GOP failed to pass an anti-lynching bill in 1922, FDR gained the black majority, and the people and events surrounding the 1964 election. However, if you bear with me you might learn some interesting things.

  1. The Failure of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill

In 1922, prospects were increasingly promising for civil rights. President Warren Harding had in the past year delivered a speech in front of a segregated audience in Alabama in which he called for equality between blacks and whites, the first president to do so. This speech was met with cheers from the black side of the segregated audience and with icy silence from the white side. The Republican platform of 1920, which reflected Harding’s views, also called for an anti-lynching bill. Black soldiers had fought bravely for the United States in World War I and the thought at the time was that this would open doors for them when they came home. Unfortunately, progress against anti-black racism would be largely stifled until after World War II. In the House, the measure was sponsored by Leonidas Dyer (R-Mo.), a Republican who could be best identified with the conservative “Old Guard”. He had been horrified by the race riots in St. Louis and East St. Louis as well as by the frequency of racially motivated lynching in the South. Public support was strong, and passage was overwhelming in the House. All but seventeen of voting Republicans were in favor, while the Southern-dominated Democratic Party only had eight of its representatives voting in favor. In the Senate, the measure would meet its requiem.

Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) had a good civil rights record in the past, having previously drafted the Lodge Elections Bill in 1890 while he was in the House. Had it not been defeated by a Senate filibuster, this measure would have tackled both Southern efforts at excluding blacks from suffrage and corrupt voting practices elsewhere in the country. Unfortunately, Lodge seemed to have lost enthusiasm for civil rights since, and gave the duty of managing the bill to conservative freshman Samuel Shortridge (R-Calif.). Had Lodge himself pursued the matter, without doubt this effort would have been more formidable. Perhaps Lodge thought that civil rights was a losing issue and thus didn’t care to put too much effort into it. Although Senator Shortridge fought for the measure to the best of his abilities, the South had more able debaters in Minority Leader Oscar Underwood (D-Ala.) and Pat Harrison (D-Miss.). They also had a Republican ace up their sleeve: William Borah.

William Borah (R-Idaho) was a true political maverick who often opposed the initiatives of conservative Republicans, such as reducing taxes on the rich. He had also led with Sen. Hiram Johnson (R-Calif.) the group of senators known as the “irreconcilables”, who opposed the Versailles Treaty in any form and were successful in defeating it. Unfortunately, one of the areas in which he proved a maverick from his party was on civil rights. For instance, Borah was the only Republican in the Senate to vote for Sen. Harrison’s proposal to extend suffrage to white women only in 1919 (Govtrack). He was also such a persuasive debater that his arguments could change how senators voted, a feat that is practically unthinkable today. Borah used his oratorical and persuasive abilities to argue against the constitutionality of the Dyer Bill. Amateur supporters like Shortridge proved unable to match his powerful oratory and his mastery of debate. Borah also divorced his arguments against the bill from the crude racism of other opponents, which proved a winning strategy. The Dyer Bill was ultimately shelved without having had an up-or-down vote in favor of ship subsidy legislation.

This failure proved to black voters in the North that even with strong majorities, Republicans were unwilling to fight hard for civil rights proposals they claimed to support. However, this did not turn blacks against the GOP yet. The last time a significant number of black voters had flirted with Democrats was with Woodrow Wilson, who W.E.B. DuBois had backed in 1912 and had won more black votes than any previous Democratic candidate. But this had proved a mistake, as the Democratic Party at the time was still Southern-dominated with many of its members, including Wilson, supporting Jim Crow laws.

  1. Herbert Hoover & FDR

In 1928, Herbert Hoover ran a presidential campaign that aimed to appeal to the South, and the time was particularly ripe for it because the Democrats had nominated…*GASP*…Catholic Al Smith! Combined with his staunch opposition to Prohibition, this guaranteed Ku Klux Klan support for Hoover and led Sen. Thomas Heflin (D-Ala.), a ridiculously bigoted man who considered shooting (non-fatally) a black man in a confrontation as among his achievements, to back him instead of Smith. Many Southerners supported Prohibition and were deeply mistrustful of Catholicism, holding the false belief that if Smith was elected, he would take orders from the Pope. The Democrats unsuccessfully tried to lessen the damage by nominating Protestant prohibitionist Sen. Joseph Robinson (D-Ark.) for the VP spot. The results were stunning for the GOP, with the party breaking the “Solid South” by winning the Southern states of Tennessee, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. The GOP hadn’t won the latter four since Reconstruction. Hoover even almost won Alabama. This had all been done without losing the black vote.

The Hoover Administration, although engaging in certain small gestures that were in the direction of racial equality, such as Jessie De Priest, wife of black Congressman Oscar De Priest (R-Ill.), having tea with First Lady Lou Hoover, the administration was probably the least friendly Republican administration to civil rights since the end of Reconstruction. Hoover actively took the side of the “lily-white” movement in the Republican parties in the South in their aim to purge the “black-and-tan” faction, which was noncompetitive due to Jim Crow laws. That approach turned out to be a spectacular failure in gaining more white votes at the time. The administration also didn’t voice support for anti-lynching legislation, which the Harding and Coolidge Administrations had done. More critically, Hoover broke an important promise.

During the aftermath of the Mississippi Floods of 1927, there were numerous accounts of Southern whites abusing blacks in the process of conducting relief efforts, including forcing them to work at gunpoint. While Hoover’s approach at disaster relief was effective in providing aid to flood victims, he wanted these stories buried. He thus struck a deal with Tuskegee Institute head Robert Moton to suppress the story in exchange for blacks having an unprecedented level of power in his new administration (Barry, 1997). Whether Hoover ultimately intended to keep the promise or not is unknown, but he was undoubtedly distracted by another factor that would lead to the start of the black exodus from the GOP: The Great Depression. The Great Depression cost Hoover the election, but he still won 77% of the black vote. FDR’s New Deal, however, resulted in a massive switch as New Deal programs brought relief and benefits to working class and poor Americans, white and black. This switch became quite evident when black Congressman Oscar De Priest (R-Ill.), a New Deal critic who represented a majority-black Chicago district, was defeated in 1934 by his protégé and former Republican, Arthur Mitchell. The district has been Democratic ever since. This development was despite Roosevelt being beholden to white Southern politicians for support, and thus also never voicing support for anti-lynching legislation publicly and accepting racial discrimination in the dispersion of benefits in the South. The increasing number of Northern Democrats in the party who were sympathetic to civil rights could also be said to be a factor in the switch, a prime example being Sen. Robert F. Wagner (D-N.Y.), a New Dealer who sponsored anti-lynching legislation. In 1936, FDR won reelection overwhelmingly, and won 71% of the black vote. After this election, no Republican presidential candidate would win more than 39% of the black vote.

  1. LBJ, Barry Goldwater, the Civil Rights Act, and the Thurmond Switch

While black support for the GOP had fallen since the Hoover Administration, there were still a sizeable number of black voters who were sticking with the party of Lincoln. After all, most Republicans proved willing to support anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation, including people like conservative leader Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio). President Harry Truman’s support for civil rights and his order to desegregate the Armed Forces helped keep blacks in the Democratic column, but the support of President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon for civil rights legislation was also helpful in keeping a significant base of support alive. Both men supported strong voting rights legislation and it was Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson who was most responsible for making the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weak. The original bill had some teeth, but Johnson figured that he could never be president if he was the typical southern politician, so for the first time in his twenty years in federal politics he expressed support for a weak civil rights bill. He struck a deal with other Southerners that in exchange for making the bill weak they wouldn’t filibuster. However, Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.), the Dixiecrat candidate for President in 1948, had different ideas. He managed to pull off the longest solo Senate filibuster in history at 24 hours against a bill that was effectively toothless. The passage of the bill as well as Thurmond’s filibuster were both strongly symbolic actions, one to give blacks hope and the other as a show of defiance.

By 1960, President Eisenhower had signed two weak civil rights bills into law that addressed voting rights. However, he had done much more than that. Eisenhower appointed judges to Southern federal courts that he knew would strike down segregation, such as Elbert Tuttle and Simon Sobeloff. In 1960, Vice President Nixon managed to win 32% of the black vote. However, there was a Republican who would prove decisive in further chipping away at the black vote: Barry Goldwater.

Among Senate Republicans, Goldwater had one of the weaker records of support on civil rights. While he had supported the 1957 and 1960 civil rights laws as well as 24th Amendment banning the poll tax for federal elections, he had also voted for the weakening amendments supported by Lyndon Johnson for the 1957 bill. Goldwater was attracting much attention for his staunch conservatism expressed in “Conscience of a Conservative”, his willingness to critique the political moderation of the Eisenhower Administration as constituting a “dime store New Deal”, and his view on who the GOP should be targeting for votes. Specifically, they should be targeting Southern whites. Goldwater figured that the GOP was bleeding out black voters while the white voters of an increasingly suburban South were finding much to like about the GOP’s suburban conservatism. In 1964, he sought the Republican nomination for President not so much to win the election, but to wrest control of the party decidedly for the conservatives. Unfortunately for the GOP, it was a bit of a foregone conclusion that they were going to lose that year: the electorate was still in mourning over the assassination of JFK and they were in no mood to turn out his successor. After winning a contentious primary in which some liberal Republicans declined to endorse him, Goldwater ran as his true self. This included taking hardline and principled stances that caused both alarm and offense. His language was cavalier on the prospects of open war with the Soviets, he hinted at privatizing Social Security, and advocated selling the Tennessee Valley Authority. The latter two stances likely cost him Southern states outside the Deep South. He also was one of six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he did because he believed that the public accommodations and the employment discrimination sections of the act were unconstitutional. After President Johnson had actively supported and signed the Civil Rights Act into law and Thurmond switched parties shortly after Goldwater’s nomination, the message to blacks seemed unmistakable. Indeed, that year Goldwater only won his home state of Arizona, five Deep South states, and 6% of the black vote. Although he performed worse in the South than Eisenhower in 1956, the symbolism of this election and his sweeping of the Deep South was of paramount importance. The GOP has made little progress since then on gaining black votes: they have won no more than 17% in a presidential election since, and most recently, 8% voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (BBC News).

In all, most political Republicans deep down may have had good intentions for black people. Indeed, when it came to measures of voting rights, combating lynching, and opposing segregation most federal politicians had solid voting records. However, they squandered the black vote through missed opportunities, broken promises, and political calculation aimed at winning the white South. Thus, when a charismatic game-changer like FDR came along, most blacks found little reason to continue sticking with the Party of Lincoln. The GOP’s historical support for businesses also limited what they were willing to do to address private sector discrimination. While it is true that the New Deal and Hoover lost the GOP the black vote, the pick of Goldwater was the final nail in the coffin, and dismal support percentages in presidential races have resulted in the party writing off the black vote. It could also rightly be pointed out that there were similarly conservative senators who voted for the Civil Rights Act, but who aside from me (and now you from reading this) knows of Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska of Nebraska, or John Williams of Delaware? They were not in the public consciousness at the time for their votes and they certainly aren’t now.


Bailey, G. This Presidential Speech on Race Shocked the Nation…in 1921. History News Network.

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Barry, J.M. (1997). Rising tide: The great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster

Caro, R.A. (2002, June). LBJ Goes for Broke. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Hamilton, D.E. Herbert Hoover: Campaigns and Elections. Miller Center.

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Reality Check: Who voted for Donald Trump? (2016, 9 November). BBC News.

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“To Amend HJR 1 By Restricting the Right to Vote to White Citizens of United States, Regardless of Sex”. Govtrack.

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