Following the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we are now engaged in a national orgy of banishing whatever can be identified as "symbols of oppression" from the past. Everywhere they exist, statues of Confederate figures are being removed from public spaces. In Congress, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for removal of a dozen or so statues of Confederate figures from the U.S. Capitol. (Funny, but there didn't seem to be any problem with them when she was Speaker not so long ago.) Here in New York, we don't have much in the way of symbols honoring Confederate figures, but somebody figured out that two streets in Brooklyn are named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, so they have to go. Governor Cuomo, feeling the politician's desperate need to jump on the bandwagon, has called for removal of a marker in Lower Manhattan noting that the City held a ticker tape parade in 1931 for French World War I military hero Henri Philippe Pétain. A decade later in the 1940s, Pétain collaborated with the Nazis, so he is also a symbol of oppression and his marker must go.
While we are at this, why don't we do something about the biggest symbol of oppression of all? I'm talking, of course, about the Democratic Party. For a century and more, the Democratic Party stood for slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it proudly marketed itself as the "white man's party," contrasting itself with the Republican Party which it accused of seeking "negro supremacy." The Democratic Party resisted civil rights legislation well into my lifetime. Today, the Democratic Party claims to have put that legacy behind it, even as the jurisdictions where it has single-party control -- places like Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis and Detroit -- are cesspools of poverty, violence, and government dependency. Is there any reason why we should forgive the Democratic Party for its odious history, let alone for its current failures? None that I can think of.
Let's just assemble a few data points in the racist history of the Democratic Party:
In the late 19th century, the Democratic Party gradually took control of each state in the South from the Republican reconstructionists, and over time proceeded to institute a regime of segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks. Each state has its own sordid history, but consider this summary of events from North Carolina (from Sean Braswell at The Daily Dose, February 17, 2017, "When the 'White Man's Party' Rocked North Carolina"):
In the years after the Civil War, Reconstruction Era Republicans in North Carolina were able to expand voting rights and political representation for African-Americans in their state. But, in 1898, the Democrats — then the party of white Southern conservatives — struck back with a “white supremacy” electoral campaign, and subsequent disenfranchisement strategy, that would devastate the state’s democracy for decades to come. . . . Calling themselves the “white man’s party,” they threw down the gauntlet for the 1898 election, proclaiming “North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’s state and WHITE MEN will rule it " . . .
[After winning the election,] the Democrats immediately set to work on several measures, including a constitutional amendment, to disenfranchise Black voters. . . . By February 1899, the amendment, containing a literacy requirement and poll tax (as well as a “grandfather clause” to ensure illiterate whites could still vote), had been passed, and was rapidly enforced to disenfranchise most of the state’s Black population.
In the early 20th century, we got that great Democratic and progressive icon Woodrow Wilson as President. What is his record in the field of race relations? For starters, Wilson segregated the formerly integrated civil service in the federal government. From Paul Rahe at FEE, September 17, 2016, "Woodrow Wilson: This So-Called Progressive was a Dedicated Racist":
Prior to the segregation of the civil service in 1913, appointments had been made solely on merit as indicated by the candidate’s performance on the civil-service examination. Thereafter, racial discrimination became the norm. Photographs came to be required at the time of application, and African-Americans knew they would not be hired. The existing work force was segregated. Many African-Americans were dismissed. In the postal service, others were transferred to the dead-letter office, where they had no contact with the general public. Those who continued to work in municipal post offices labored behind screens — out of sight and out of mind.
Wilson provides a treasure trove of racist quotations. Here are a couple from this compilation:
- “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation—until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
- “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Yet somehow Wilson remains a respectable figure, with his name all over Princeton University.
Franklin Roosevelt? He gladly accepted the support of Southern segregationists in his presidential runs, and was the guy who appointed ex-Ku Klux Klansman and Democratic Senator from Alabama Hugo Black to the Supreme Court in 1937. Black went on to write the Supreme Court opinion in 1944 upholding the confinement of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II.
And is this all ancient history? Well, how about Robert Byrd? He served as Democratic Senator from West Virginia from 1959 all the way to 2010, including two stints as Majority Leader in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1940s he was a Grand Cyclops in the KKK, head of a chapter and active in recruiting. Here are a couple of quotes from Byrd appearing in his Wikipedia biography:
- From a letter to Senator Bilbo of Mississippi in December 1944: "I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side ... Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."
- From a 1946 letter to the Grand Wizard of the Klan: "The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation."
In the 1960s, Byrd was a leader of the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Also in my lifetime, we have the likes of Bull Connor -- long-time member of the DNC and Democratic Commissioner of Public Safety for Birmingham, Alabama -- who became famous in the 1950s and 60s for offering no protection to civil rights demonstrators against KKK violence, and then as the guy who jailed Martin Luther King.
Obviously these are just a handful of examples, of which I could come up with hundreds. The association of the Democratic Party with segregation, racism, and oppression is long and deep. At this point, there is no way that it can disassociate itself from that history. If we are abolishing the symbols of oppression from our society, why should this not be the first to go?