History News Network
On September 17, lawyers from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University joined the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, and others in a lawsuit to overturn a new state voter identification law (Brennan Center).
A month earlier, North Carolina enacted a statute containing several reforms, including a requirement that voters produce government-issued photo identification and a seven-day reduction in the period for early voting.
These and similar proposals in other states have sparked sharp partisan fights. Democrats believe that they violate the Voting Rights Act and constitute deliberate efforts by Republicans to suppress voting by nonwhites, students, and others who by and large do not favor the GOP. Firmly denying any intent of malice against any demographic group, Republicans insist that reforms are needed to combat voter fraud.
Conflicts over voting are as old as the republic, but they have intensified since President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election and the Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision striking down Section Four of the Voting Rights Act, which determined the states and localities required to seek federal approval for changes in election laws. “Preclearance,” as this policy was commonly known, applied primarily to the South. Republicans have tended to applaud the Court’s ruling, arguing that discrimination against nonwhites once was a problem but is now so rare that federal oversight is no longer needed. Colin Powell stands a rare exception within the GOP; he has denounced the North Carolina statute as morally wrong, based on inaccurate beliefs about the extent of fraud, and politically suicidal. The Republican Party, he contends, should be reaching out to blacks and other nonwhites.
For some observers, these developments are the latest chapter in the shift of the pro-civil rights “party of Lincoln” to a southern-controlled, states’ rights GOP that has little room for African Americans. Didn’t overwhelming majorities of congressional Republicans favor the Voting Rights Act in 1965? Yes. In the Senate, thirty Republicans backed the legislation, and only two opposed. House Republicans voted five-to-one for it. As Republicans have been noting ever since, that was a higher percentage of support than registered by Democrats.
A closer look at the events of 1965, however, reveals that the current Republican approach to voting is more similar to that of a half century ago than the final congressional tallies indicate. So, too, is the contemporary political context.
In March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson proposed legislation that greatly expanded federal authority over state election laws, particularly in the South. The bill contained a “trigger” provision that used voter participation data from 1964 to automatically suspend literacy tests in several southern states and bring those states under the preclearance requirement. This approach would relieve individuals and organizations of many of the considerable legal hurdles (and, in numerous instances, personal risk) of filing lawsuits. That case-by-case method had been tried under the 1957 and 1960 civil rights laws but had resulted in few new black voters.
Led by Everett Dirksen (Ill.), Senate Republicans allied with non-southern Democrats to defeat southerners’ efforts to preserve local autonomy, most notably their attempts to delete the trigger and preclearance provisions. Republicans also backed cloture, which ended the southern Democrats’ filibuster and ensured that the bill would pass.
House Republicans initially rallied behind legislation, offered by Gerald Ford (Mi.) and William McCulloch (Oh.), that enhanced federal jurisdiction compared to earlier civil rights laws but nevertheless preserved more state autonomy compared to Johnson’s. Their bill did not automatically ban literacy tests or contain preclearance requirements. Since the early twentieth century, Republicans had favored literacy tests in their own states and insisted upon maximizing state authority over voting rules, largely in response to high levels of immigration to the Northeast and Midwest. Low levels of black voting, Ford and McCulloch argued, might stem from factors unrelated to discrimination. The pair also pointed out that their legislation would apply to more southern states than did the president’s. Prominent civil rights groups and leaders preferred Johnson’s approach, however.
The Senate’s action, plus the sizable Democratic majority in the House, meant that the Ford-McCulloch legislation had no chance. House Republicans then fell in line with the winning side. Just one of the seventeen Republicans from the ex-Confederate states voted for Johnson’s measure. Southern Republicans, in other words, were just as eager as southern Democrats to limit Washington’s reach.
The political context of the mid-1960s also echoes the present. In 1965, Republicans were debating how to rebuild their party. The 1964 election had been a disaster not just for presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, but for the party as well. A handful of Republicans wanted to more closely align the GOP with the civil rights movement. Doing so, they argued, would increase African American support and help the party with the expanding number of whites, in the South and elsewhere, who favored a more racially egalitarian society. “We have got to get the party away from being an Anglo-Saxon Protestant white party,” Charles Percy asserted. Percy had just lost his bid to be governor of Illinois; he would be elected to the Senate in 1966. Likewise, Governor George Romney (Mi.) fired off a twelve page letter to Goldwater in which he noted that the Arizona senator had received eight million fewer votes than Richard Nixon did in 1960 and voiced alarm over the “southern-rural-white” thrust of the senator’s campaign. “The party’s need to become more broadly inclusive and attractive,” Romney emphasized, “should be obvious to anyone.”
Romney and Percy were minority voices within their party. Most Republicans continued to agree with Goldwater that the black vote was largely unwinnable and essentially irrelevant. Whites far outnumbered African Americans in most of the nation, including most of the South. As Johnson’s bill was being debated, state and local Republicans from Dixie warned northern GOP lawmakers that allying with president would undermine the party’s recent growth in Dixie. Worried that the elimination of literacy tests would mean a large influx of black voters, one Louisiana organization appealed to Nixon to lobby congressional Republicans on the South’s behalf. Illiterate African Americans, they wrote the former vice president, simply followed Democrats’ instructions or sold their votes for beer or a few dollars. The head of the Mississippi GOP predicted chaos “if large numbers of ignorant, illiterate persons are suddenly given the vote.”
Concerns over fraud were not limited to the South. Believing that the Democrats had stolen the 1960 election through fraud in Chicago and elsewhere, the RNC had launched Operation Eagle Eye in 1964. Republicans across the nation tried a variety of techniques to prove that many African American voters were ineligible. Republicans also worked to dissuade blacks from voting by spreading false information in African American neighborhoods regarding the voting process. Operation Eagle Eye flopped, but Republicans would continue to use many of these methods in the decades ahead.
Timothy N. Thurber is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of The Politics of Equality: Hubert H. Humphrey and the African American Freedom Struggle, and, most recently, Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945–1974.
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