Why Black people switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party

The Black American switch from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party can be attributed to a number of factors. There had been obvious historical ties. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the party of Frederick Douglass, who was the greatest voice for Black freedom in the 19th Century. Douglass said in earnest, “The Republican Party is the ship, and all else is the sea.” It was the party of Radical Republicans, who pushed legislation through Congress that changed the legal status of African people from slave to free. And there was more: The abolitionists who came south to help build schools, hospitals and cultural institutions. There was a great deal of gratitude on the part of African Americans for the aid of the Republicans, some of it genuine humanitarian work, some of it purely political.

Suffice it to say, Black people remained loyal to the Republican Party long after the party had abandoned them. People are creatures of habit. In this case, Black Americans are a perfect example. Sentiment and habit kept Black Americans blind to political realities. There were occasional individuals who flirted with the Democrats, but this was very rare. During the time of Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s Administration (1916), W.E.B. Dubois faintly hinted at the possibility of supporting President Wilson and provoked a highly negative response from his colleagues. At one time, the Democrats were anathema to Black people.

The major cause for the big switch from Republican to Democratic Party can be traced to three pivotal occurrences:

First, the Great Depression and the tragic effects that ensued. Blacks, like most people of those terrifying times, were desperate. The Republican Party, which took them for granted (as the Democrats do today) offered token participation. During the Depression, Roosevelt and the New Deal offered more. Ralph Bunche, who later became a Nobel Prize winner, summed it up this way: “The Negro Democratic vote in 1932 and 1936 was a “bread and butter vote.’” He wrote, “Blacks had left the Republicans, not for positive attraction of the Democrats as a party but because of tangible economic benefits offered by the New Deal.”

Second was the election in 1936 of Arthur Mitchell, who had long been disenchanted with the Republican Party. He was well respected in the Black Community and consciously made an effort with some success to win the Black vote for the Democrats. The fact that he was elected three times speaks volumes. Mitchell was followed into Congress in 1942 by a lawyer, William Dawson, who took his seat. In 1944 Adam Clayton Powell was sent to Congress by Harlem (New York). Charles Diggs arrived from Michigan in 1954; in 1967 he became the major player in organizing the Congressional Black Caucus and he served until 1980. Robert Nix of Pennsylvania was elected in 1958. All were Democrats.

A third factor putting the Black vote in the Democratic column comes from unsuspected quarters. The First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had long cultivated warm relations with “the Negro.” She was a good personal friend of Mary McCleod Bethune, the great educator-founder of Bethune-Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women. Mrs. Roosevelt played a powerful role in private and in public, using her influence to draw Blacks to the party.

Her greatest opportunity came when Marian Anderson, the incomparable African American contralto, returned to American after a triumphant European tour. Of Marian Anderson world-renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini said, “A voice like Marian Anderson’s comes once in a hundred years.” Because of her overwhelming success in Europe, an attempt was made to arrange a concert by Ms. Anderson in Constitution Hall. Sad to say, Constitution Hall was governed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). That organization refused to allow this great artist to sing at the hall because of her “race.” Mrs. Roosevelt, along with Harold Ickes, a cabinet member, arranged for Ms. Anderson to sing at an even greater venue, the Lincoln Memorial on the Capitol Mall on Easter Sunday, 1939. Seventy-five thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson. It was the largest turnout for a concert up until that time in history. To boot, Mrs. Roosevelt, who was also from old American stock, promptly resigned from this highbrow racist organization (the DAR). This one act made for an immeasurable emotional response from the African American community. One could well imagine how many thousands of Black votes this single powerful event won for the Democrats.
It is said that politics is the art of the possible. A part of the art of politics is managing people’s emotions. This was a clear example of emotion wrapped in history, culture and the human spirit. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt was returned to office a third time, with Blacks giving a clear majority, thanks to the emotional power of Marian Anderson’s moving concert, which was pregnant with heavy political overtones of benefit to the Democrats. From that day, Black Americans became firmly entrenched in the camp of the Democratic Party. This event echoes the words of two great African American minds:

Democracy is a process and not a static condition. It is not being but becoming. It can be easily lost and never fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.
-Judge William Hastie

And from Langston Hughes, as only he could put it:

There is a dream in this land
With its back against the wall.
To save the dream for one,
It must be saved for all.

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