RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the recent Republican primary runoff in Mississippi, a long-serving Republican senator won out over a Tea Party-backed challenger with a sizable number of votes from predominantly African-American precincts. It's rare that black voters would boost a Republican to victory even in a primary, but that wasn't always the case. The GOP used to have a significant number of black members. There was a sudden exodus, though, after the party gathered in San Francisco 50 years ago this week to nominate a presidential candidate. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team takes a look back.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In July 1964, GOP delegates streamed into San Francisco from all over the country. They met in the Cow Palace, the converted livestock pavilion. It was less than a month after civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Cheney and Mickey Schwerner had been kidnapped on a Mississippi back road during Freedom Summer. Two weeks before the convention, Lyndon Johnson made this announcement.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, I'm about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
BATES: Tufts University historian Peniel Joseph says the national events leading up to the '64 GOP convention affected what went on there.
PENIEL JOSEPH: One of the legacies of Freedom Summer is connected to the politics and the transformation of the Republican National Party, absolutely.
BATES: Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan studies voter patterns and says while they seem like a rarity now, black Republicans weren't always an oxymoron.
VINCENT HUTCHINGS: The data suggests that even as late as 1960, only about two-thirds of African-Americans were identified with the Democratic Party. Now two-thirds is a pretty big number. But when you compare it to today, you know, that number hovers in the neighborhood of 90 percent.
BATES: Hutchings says after the Civil War most black voters were Republicans. The party of Lincoln had, after all, emancipated them and given them the vote during Reconstruction, something deeply resented by white Southerners who were mostly Democrats then. Hutchings says the black exodus from the Republican Party began in the 1930s during Franklin Roosevelt's second term.
HUTCHINGS: African-Americans were attracted to the Democratic Party for the same reasons that many other Americans were because of the New Deal, because of the economic crisis and the efforts on the part of the Roosevelt Administration to address the staggering poverty of the time.
BATES: In 1964, black Republicans assumed they would back New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was socially liberal and fiscally moderate. But Rockefeller's messy divorce upset delegates we'd now label family values voters. And his moderate supporters were blindsided by the well-organized supporters of the unapologetically conservative senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. In his now-famous acceptance speech, Goldwater promised to vigorously pursue state's rights and freedom from big government.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
JOSEPH: That's a very specific notion of liberty - small government, a government that doesn't give out handouts to black people, a government that doesn't have laws that interferes with state's rights, a government that is not conducting a war on poverty.
BATES: That's Mr. Peniel Joseph. He believes Goldwater's speech was a welcomed signal to many disgruntled, white southern voters and, says Vince Hutchings, a disturbing message to black ones.
HUTCHINGS: African-Americans heard the message that was intended to be heard, which is that Goldwater and the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party was opposed not just to the Civil Rights bill of 1964 but to the civil rights movement in large part, as well.
BATES: Hutchings says the months after that speech saw not a trickle of blacks leaving the GOP, but a flood.
HUTCHINGS: It was an abrupt shift for those relatively few, but still not trivial, fraction of blacks - that the writing on the wall was clear for these voters. And they moved aggressively, almost unanimously, into the Democratic Party.
BATES: At a Los Angeles farmer's market, virtually every black person I approached told me he or she was a registered Democrat, including this man.
ARTHUR LITTLE: Arthur Little and I am affiliated with the Democratic Party, of course.
BATES: And why?
LITTLE: Because I think of it as a party that is at least, officially, interested in putting people's rights before corporate rights.
BATES: As she offers passers-by handmade soap, Jasmine Patton-Gant says her family has been Democrats for decades. And she's voted in almost every election since she could vote.
JASMINE PATTON-GRANT: I am a Democrat only because I've inherited that from my parents. It's not as though I would be a Republican but I'm completely dissatisfied with both parties.
BATES: So the Republican choice of Barry Goldwater in 1964 drove black voters into the Democrat's arms, where 90 percent of them remain. But if Jasmine Patton-Gant is any indication, at least some might be willing to be wooed by a more ardent suitor. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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