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Max Boot, Jackie Robinson, and the racism problem in the Republican Party

Max Boot could have had an awakening decades ago — if he’d listened to black conservatives.

General view as delegates to the Republican National Convention stage a huge demonstration for Sen. Barry Goldwater, after his name was placed in nomination for the presidency.
Bettmann Archive

The American writer and self-described “lifelong conservative” Max Boot has experienced a radical change of heart about the Republican Party — half a century after many others were forced to do the same.

In his new book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, an excerpt of which ran in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Boot argues that American conservatism and the Republican Party under Donald Trump have been irreparably degraded. And the overwhelming strength of Trumpism has made Boot reconsider conservatism itself; now he argues that the GOP must suffer “repeated and devastating defeats.”

In the book, Boot not only details his own political history, as both a conservative and a mover and shaker in Republican circles of influence, but attempts to parse what the hell happened to the conservative movement he once so believed in and now rejects as a movement with deep links to white supremacy. He writes:

In 1964, the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and became the party of Southern whites. As I now look back with the clarity of hindsight, I am convinced that coded racial appeals had at least as much, if not more, to do with the electoral success of the modern Republican Party than all of the domestic and foreign policy proposals crafted by well-intentioned analysts like me. This is what liberals have been saying for decades. I never believed them.

Boot’s willingness to self-reflect should be commended. It’s just unfortunate that he’s arrived at his conclusion three generations behind the times. And these conclusions weren’t reached by liberals — they were established by neutral observers, journalists and prominent black conservatives, like Jackie Robinson — who all identified the problem as it unfolded for decades.

Since the early 1960s, black Republicans and black conservatives have seen the whitening of the Republican Party and the increasing racial extremism of the conservative movement. They protested outside the 1964 Republican National Convention and lobbied Republican leaders; eventually, many decided to stop voting for the GOP altogether, stating unequivocally that they were doing so because they felt they were no longer welcome in the Grand Old Party. One man wrote in a letter to the New York Amsterdam News, “Any Negro who helps the cause of Goldwater, should be declared anything but a Negro, because they will be a traitor to the Negro people.”

It’s just that no one else listened then, or now — including Boot, who admits in the book that he had never actually read Goldwater’s writings.

Boot has, understandably, received a fair amount of criticism for his sudden revelations from the right — who marveled at how he went so long without reading the work of the conservative movement’s biggest names — and from some on the left, who wondered whether Boot’s decision to leave the Republican Party will have any lasting ramifications on a party that may already be too far gone.

But the stories of the black conservatives who tried to tell America that something was deeply wrong with the Republican Party many of them loved deeply aren’t too far gone to be remembered, or to be retold today.

The greatest stand of the black Republican

To Boot’s credit, he writes extensively in the book about his belated recognition of the horrifying racial politics of the conservative movement of which he was so enamored as a young person, culminating in the 1964 presidential campaign that pitted Republican Barry Goldwater against Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson. The campaign marked an inflection point for conservatism as it turned away from black voters and toward white Southerners and white rural Americans more broadly.

In the book, Boot writes of National Review founder William F. Buckley:

Buckley also editorialized in National Review against desegregation. One notorious 1957 editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” claimed that “the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as necessary to prevail, politically and culturally ... because for the time being it is the advanced race.” The editors went on, shockingly enough, to assert: “The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could.” That is as blatant and ugly a statement of racism as one might have the misfortune to read.

From “Why the South Must Prevail.”
National Review

(It’s worth noting that while National Review permitted L. Brent Bozell to publish a rebuttal to the piece two weeks after its publishing, Bozell himself ghostwrote Barry Goldwater’s 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative, which argued extensively against desegregation efforts.)

But black conservatives, and black journalists, didn’t need 60 years to recognize that the GOP was turning toward racism (both outright and subtle); nor did they require six decades to see, as Boot does in the book, that “reading [Goldwater’s] actual words — something I had not done before — reveals he really was an extremist.”

For example, black writers in the South, like Birmingham World editor Emory Jackson, were writing in black publications about the problems the racist right was causing in the South and what black Americans, finally able to exercise their right to vote after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, could do about it.

In an interview with Jet Magazine in 1965, Jackson detailed what was taking place on the ground in Alabama with regard to civil rights, telling journalist Francis Ward that “the backbone of legal segregation could be broken” in Alabama if Republican Congress members were voted out of office.

From Jet Magazine, February 25, 1965.

And as extensively detailed in the book The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, black conservatives of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s mobilized extensively against Barry Goldwater, arguing rightly that Goldwater’s loving embrace of the “Southern Manifesto” — a 1956 speech by Southern Democrats that rejected school desegregation as “destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races” — posed a real danger to black Americans everywhere.

P.L. Prattis, a black journalist for the Chicago Defender, wrote in 1961, “Are Negroes to be first class citizens or not? Are you in favor of that — or are you in favor of the Southern Manifesto?”

And then there was Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball and a staunch Republican who wrote extensively on the GOP’s failures to reach out to black voters and the creeping forces of racism within the party. In his syndicated newspaper column, Robinson spoke constantly about his concern that his party was turning against him and other black Americans.

In 1957, he and other black Republicans saw the RNC put together “Operation Dixie,” a voter recruitment effort aimed purely at white Southerners, while also noticing that efforts to recruit black voters weren’t getting funded. “The danger of the Republican party being taken over by the lily-white-ist conservatives is more serious than many people realize,” he wrote in 1963.

Baseball star Jackie Robinson addresses civil rights supporters protesting Barry Goldwater during the 1964 GOP National Convention.
Ted Streshinsky/Corbis via Getty Images

Robinson attended (and protested outside of) the 1964 Republican National Convention, which Smithsonian magazine described as “the ugliest of Republican conventions since 1912.” In his 1972 autobiography I Never Had It Made, Robinson detailed what happened there in an experience he described as “one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life,” adding, “As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany”:

It was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present. Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “niggers”. They had no real standing in the convention, no clout. They were unimportant and ignored.

One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it. Another one, from the Alabama delegation where I was standing at the time of the Rockefeller speech, turned on me menacingly while I was shouting “C’mon Rocky” as the governor stood his ground. He started up in his seat as if to come after me. His wife grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose,” I shouted.

I was ready for him. I wanted him badly, but luckily for him he obeyed his wife.

In 1967, Robinson would write, “During my life, I have had a few nightmares which happened to me while I was wide awake. One of them was the National Republican Convention in San Francisco, which produced the greatest disaster the Republican Party has ever known — Nominee Barry Goldwater.”

Goldwater would lose the election in a landslide, partly because black Republicans like Robinson and thousands of others voted for Johnson and against the racism of Goldwater’s campaign. In an interview with the Chicago Defender after the election, Edward Brooke, the black and Republican attorney general of Massachusetts said, “Negroes simply could not accept his marriage to Southern reactionaries.”

“We can’t say to Negroes ‘Come to us,’ we’ve got to go after them.”

But it wasn’t just black conservatives, or black journalists, or even just black Americans in general who, again and again, pointed to racism in the GOP as being a real problem for both the party and America. White Republicans — and the party’s observers — understood too that racism was an issue for the party’s future. (Even during that 1964 presidential race that Robinson and other black conservatives were so angered by, a white journalist for the New Yorker who followed the Goldwater campaign asked why, in Goldwater’s constant willingness to speak his mind, there was no explanation for “his reluctance to say anything that would upset the racists.”)

But unfortunately, they decided that in a contest between black Americans and white votes, the later was of greater interest.

From Ebony Magazine, April 1962.

In 1962, then-failed presidential candidate Richard Nixon sat down with Ebony magazine to explain how he could have won against John F. Kennedy in 1960 had he had “five percent more votes in the Negro areas,” and had the GOP done a better job campaigning with black Americans:

We can’t say to Negroes “Come to us,” we’ve got to go after them. We’ve got to change the image of the GOP among Negroes. The Democrats are well organized and well financed — but we’ve got to get into the Negro areas if we expect to mould a party for all people. We’ve got to convince Negroes they’re better off economically under a GOP president.

From Ebony Magazine, April 1962.

But six years later, Nixon would use the racially-motivated “Southern Strategy” to finally win the White House, by using the increased number of black Democrats to push white Democrats to the GOP. As Nixon’s political strategist, Kevin Phillips, told the New York Times in 1970:

All the talk about Republicans making inroads into the Negro vote is persiflage. Even “Jake the Snake” [Sen. Jacob K. Javits] only gets 20 per cent. From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 per cent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that ... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

And even in office, where Nixon would assemble an unofficial “black cabinet” of black Republicans who argued that economic uplift would be the final step toward full equality, he would also make continued and overt overtures to white supremacists in the South.

For example, he nominated G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court, the same Carswell who believed that “segregation of the races was ... the only practical and correct way of life” and had said in a speech during a race for the Georgia legislature in 1948, “I will yield to no man, as a fellow candidate or a fellow citizen, in the firm vigorous belief in the principles of white supremacy and I shall always be so governed.” When the nomination failed, Nixon blamed it on anti-Southern prejudice, saying, “I understand the bitter feeling of millions of Americans who live in the South about the act of regional discrimination that took place in the Senate yesterday.”

He did not mention Carswell’s racism as a possible factor in the failed bid for the Court.

The perils of not listening

This, and the failures of the GOP before and since when it came to talking to black voters, or even talking about black Americans, was debated by black conservatives and reported on widely in the black press, in publications like Jet and Ebony and the Chicago Defender. When Boot writes in his book that “where once the GOP had been a ‘big tent’ party, it now became an ideological conservative organization” and that it was “the party of midwestern isolationists and southern segregationists,” he is repeating what black conservatives like Robinson and black journalists like Prattis said more than half a century ago, to no avail.

In 1976 — 42 years before Boot published his book — Robert Keyes, a black conservative who had worked on Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign, wrote a memo about the failures of that campaign to appeal to black voters.

He wrote about how terrified the GOP was to talk to black voters, in fear that “overt actions or appeals by President Ford would stop the trend of southern white rednecks and right wingers who were allegedly coming on the Ford bandwagon in sufficient numbers which would justify our continuing the exclusionary-type of campaign we were waging.” And he concluded, “Quite frankly, as a Black Republican, it’s getting lonelier and lonelier and I wonder how much longer I will be able to make excuses and avoid the issues of the ineptness of our Republican Party leadership.”

More than 40 years later, it grows lonelier still, it seems.

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