Timothy Nels Thurber. Republicans and Race: The GOP's Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945-1974. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013. 496 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1938-2.
Reviewed by Patrick Jones
Published on H-1960s (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Zachary J. Lechner (Centenary College of Louisiana)
Timothy Thurber’s Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945-1974 seeks to complicate our understanding of the relationship between the Republican Party and African Americans in the pivotal post-WWII period. Thurber sets out to challenge both liberal arguments that the “Party of Lincoln” abandoned its long-standing commitment to civil rights during the 1960s, embracing a racially reactionary politics for electoral gain in the post-civil rights era, as well as conservative arguments that attempt to paint the GOP as a kind of forgotten champion of civil rights. Instead, Thurber attempts to cut a middle path between these rhetorical poles. He argues that, indeed, the Republican Party’s relationship was much more complicated than often admitted and that “Republicans exerted considerable influence over the timing and content of racial policy” throughout this period (p. 3). To be sure, as Thurber’s book highlights, there was consistent debate within the GOP over the issue of race and the place of African Americans in US society and how the party might best navigate those tricky and fast-evolving political currents. Yet, Thurber is also quick to point out that Republican influence on civil rights policy was most often in the name of watering down such measures, restraining the expansion of federal power and limiting the focus of racial policy to the Jim Crow South. Liberal Republicans, who most often championed civil rights within the GOP, remained small in number throughout this period and were rarely able to marshal broad support within the party for their perspective. Thus, this is hardly the heroic civil rights story contemporary Republicans try to claim. Yet, Thurber’s book also makes clear that the liberal assertions of a sharp rupture in the party during this period are also unfounded. He shows that Republicans, overall, were compelled to be more responsive to civil rights policy as the black freedom movement gained strength in the South and across the country during the long sixties, but that they were also much more consistent in their approach toward racial policy than liberal arguments allow. The end result of Thurber’s work, then, is to put forth a more complex and balanced assessment of GOP racial politics at the federal level in the post-WWII period.
During the second half of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, a strong racial status quo dominated federal politics. Southern white Democrats used their control of key congressional committees, as well as their mastery of parliamentary procedure, to consistently stymie civil rights legislation. Democrats beyond Dixie most often put party unity over racial justice, preferring to avoid the issue when possible. For their part, Eisenhower and congressional Republicans rarely prioritized civil rights for black Americans and usually opposed such legislation because of their ideological commitment to limited federal authority. As a result, meaningful civil rights legislation remained elusive until the mid-1960s.
In the early 1960s, as the tide of grassroots civil rights activism reached a public crescendo in 1963, many Republicans, like most federal office-holders in both parties, were compelled to get more directly involved in racial policy and potential civil rights legislation. Fearful that inaction might result in further protest and social discord and concerned about the possible expansion of federal authority in any new civil rights legislation, the GOP engaged congressional wrangling over legislation more energetically than they had previously. While many Republicans remained unmoved on the issue of African American rights, others viewed overt racial discrimination, particularly in employment, as an artificial barrier for African Americans to self-improvement, and thus supported legislation that outlawed this type of discrimination, though they preferred voluntary remedies and severely limited federal power to enforce such measures. Working from this ideological standpoint, the GOP consistently pushed to soften equal employment language and ensure that federal power related to school desegregation was limited to the South. “Republicans, like many northern Democrats,” Thurber writes, “continued to believe that race was a southern problem (p. 151).
Ultimately, congressional Republicans held the balance of power in terms of passage of any civil rights bill. Without them, northern Democrats could not break the inevitable filibuster by southern Democrats in the Senate. Time and again GOP members in both houses of Congress used this political advantage to gain key concessions limiting federal authority over civil rights, especially outside of the South. So, while it is true that Republicans played an important, even central, role in passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, their main impact on the shape of the legislation was to water it down, particularly in those areas, like Title VII, that focused on labor and employment. Congressional Republicans circumscribed federal oversight of labor relations and worked to ensure that provisions mandating the desegregation of schools and public accommodations did not apply beyond the South.
During the second half of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, as debates over racial policy shifted to the issues of voting rights, housing, busing, affirmative action, and poverty—often with a focus on urban America and against the backdrop of widespread racial violence and economic stagnation—congressional Republicans worked hard on behalf of their white constituencies across the country to limit federal authority and block the use of public tax dollars for urban programs that they felt disproportionately benefited people of color and the poor. Similarly, the party regularly defended existing (segregated) housing and schooling patterns from federal encroachment and increasingly blocked new initiatives aimed at civil rights and racial amelioration.
Thurber generously paints Richard Nixon’s presidency as a “synthesis” between liberal Republican viewpoints and the emerging, more strident anti-civil rights conservatism of Barry Goldwater and his followers. Believing black voters were “unwinnable and unnecessary” (p. 340) to his electoral success, Nixon rebuffed liberal Republicans, such as John Rockefeller and George Romney, who “articulated a racially progressive vision that focused on bringing the Northeast and the Midwest, as well as African Americans, back to the GOP” (p. 280). Instead, he attempted to put together a political coalition that built on traditional GOP strengths among corporate leaders and rural and small-town voters by drawing in white suburban voters as a new focal point of Republican politics and stealing away northern white working-class voters, who had long been the backbone of the winning Democratic coalition. Yet, at the same time, Nixon sought to distance his administration from Goldwater’s extremism on race, demonstrating that the Republican Party could respond to new cultural circumstances. According to Thurber, “Nixon proclaimed a new era in which the implementation of existing racial policies would matter more than fresh initiatives” and where federal power might be brought to bear against explicit legal discrimination or segregation, but not against de facto racial inequalities (p. 282). Nixon played to white racial anxieties by “telling them a narrative about themselves, African Americans, and the nation that they already believed,” a narrative that drew on well-established racial stereotypes and tapped into a growing feeling of white aggrievement (p. 281).
Overall, Republicans and Race does help us see an expanded view of federal racial politics during the post-WWII period, a view that brings the Republican Party and a number of forgotten players back into focus. In general, it provides part of an important corrective, a more complex (and sympathetic) perspective on the GOP and its role in shaping (and being shaped by) racial policy during this pivotal era in American politics. It suggests a degree of adaptability by Republican politicians during this period, but also a certain consistency across time. Even as more Republicans felt moved to engage in legislative wrangling over civil rights legislation, old patterns of obstruction, dilution, and opposition persisted long after the mid-1970s. As Thurber writes in his epilogue, even in the era of Obama, when an ongoing demographic transformation makes clear that the GOP faces increasingly difficult prospects if it remains an overwhelmingly white party, “Republicans also showed little inclination to rethink long-standing attitudes about race, politics, and the role of the state” (p. 388). He goes on to conclude, “A two-term African American president, elected largely by women, youth, and nonwhites, indicated that much had changed since the New Deal. Yet as far as Republicans were concerned, nothing had changed” (pp. 388-389).
It is important to note that Thurber admits up front that his book focuses on Congress “to bring greater balance to a narrative that has placed presidents and presidential contenders at center stage” (p. 3). Even so, there are still significant stretches of text, especially those focusing on Eisenhower and Nixon, where presidents and presidential politics still dominate the story. And, whatever utility there is in the federal focus employed by Thurber, there is clearly more to this story, particularly at the state and local level. It seems clear that a good portion of the energy driving conservative racial politics during this era was coming from state capitols, local school boards, city councils, and grassroots politics rooted in a host of private organizations and directly in neighborhoods. This calls for a more complex and nuanced political analysis that probes the relationships and interactivities between federal politics, local and state mobilizations, and broad grassroots activism around issues of race and civil rights policy. For instance, how did national politics interact with the kinds of local suburban politics written about by Joe Crespino, Matthew Lassiter, Becky Nicoliades, Tom Sugrue, Kevin Kruse, Lisa McGirr, and others? Or, how did national Republican Party politics intersect with private political organizations on issues of race and civil rights, from the John Birch Society to local American Legion posts, anti-tax and anti-open housing groups, to religiously conservative organizations and others? How might historians better convey the fragmented, multilayered politics of the American system on this issue during this critical period?
Thurber has clearly done quite a bit of research, both in the secondary literature and with a host of primary source materials, from presidential papers and legislative records, to public reports, records, and statements, as well as newspapers and other media. Yet, in the end, I am not sure how revelatory many scholars who do work in this area will find Thurber’s argument, as many of his key insights have their advocates in the existing scholarly discourse. But there he certainly makes a contribution in pulling much of the story together in one place. The book is quite long, including roughly one hundred pages of notes, which limits its use in undergraduate classrooms, though excerpted sections might still be helpful in some courses. It will serve as a solid general research resource for scholars of post-WWII American politics, or a nice go-to text when crafting lectures on federal racial politics in this era. As such, Republicans and Race should find a welcome home with a range of scholars who work on modern US political history, African American history, civil rights studies, modern conservatism, and post-WWII America generally.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-1960s.
Patrick Jones. Review of Thurber, Timothy Nels, Republicans and Race: The GOP's Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945-1974.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.
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