The Original Blexit : Code Switch How is it that the party of Lincoln became anathema to black voters? It's a messy story, exemplified in the doomed friendship between Richard Nixon and his fellow Republican, Jackie Robinson.

The Original Blexit

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CAROL SWAIN: The Democratic Party has fought against every major civil rights initiative and has a long history of discrimination.

TED CRUZ: Listen; the Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.

DINESH D'SOUZA: The Democratic Party historically has been the party of white supremacy.

ALLEN WEST: They're the party of segregation. They're the party of the Ku Klux Klan.

BEN CARSON: Who started the KKK? That was the Democrats.

LYNNETTE HARDAWAY: And how about you disavow the Democratic Party for even creating the KKK.





It is one of the most well-worn clapbacks in modern American politics. How can people call Republicans racist when Democrats were the party of the KKK?

DEMBY: Today, Republicans and Republican-affiliated commentators like to say that black folks abandoned the party of Lincoln because they've been enticed by Democrats offering them all sorts of delicious government handouts.

MERAJI: Well, that sounds like a dog whistle if I've ever heard one.

DEMBY: It's not good, Shereen. It's not good.

MERAJI: (Laughter) No, it's not. Republicans claiming black voters abandoned the party of Lincoln to join the party of segregationists ignores a lot of the messy details and all the complicated things that we like to get into on the pod.

DEMBY: But we shan't ignore those things because this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. On this episode, we're going to get into how the GOP - the party of Lincoln - mutated into the party of Trump and how the former party of the KKK - the Democratic Party's backbone - is now made up of black voters.

DEMBY: That's all after the break.

MERAJI: Stay with us.


EL GRINGO: (Singing) This is a song about Democrats. We've got to go back to the day. About a couple hundred years ago, the Democrats all had slaves...

MERAJI: This is terrible.

DEMBY: Gene (laughter).

MERAJI: Shereen.


MERAJI: Gene - W, T, actual F (laughter).

DEMBY: Shereen, that's your boy El Gringo.

MERAJI: Oh, really? That's my boy.

DEMBY: Produced by Kanye West (laughter).

MERAJI: Oh, of course. I can tell - high production values.

DEMBY: But that song is full of the kind of rhetoric and pseudohistory that animates this defense that we were just talking about against the idea that the Republican Party is the party of racists and white supremacists.


EL GRINGO: (Singing) And the democrats lie all day - chilling in their safe space, yeah, hating on the white race, yeah. They throw a bunch of rocks at the policemen and they wonder why they get tased. Yeah. It's the party of the KKK. Yeah...


DEMBY: (Laughter) So in our previous episode, we talked about that tiny, tiny universe of black Republicans. But we didn't get into the history of how the GOP, which used to be the home of black voters, became anathema to them.


MERAJI: So let's get into it. After emancipation, black people in the South had one political advantage - there were a lot of them. And those who could vote were voting for Republicans. The Grand Old Party was the party of Lincoln and some of the country's most ardent reconstructionists.

And during Reconstruction in the 1870s, half a million black Americans cast ballots. And a number of black men were elected as lawmakers in the South. Now, this political enfranchisement was short-lived because white Southerners fought it with everything they had.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And after Reconstruction was overthrown, Southern Democrats put up barriers to the ballot for black voters - we're talking poll taxes, literacy tests and lynch mobs.

DEMBY: So when we talk about black voting in the decades following Reconstruction and before the Voting Rights Act, we have to be clear that we are primarily talking about black voters in the North. And since Democrats - you know, the party that opposed the abolition of slavery - were also the official political organ for all these expressions of Southern white supremacy that popped up in the post-Reconstruction years, black folks who could vote did not bang with them.

MERAJI: But that didn't mean everything was comfy cozy for African Americans in the Republican Party. After Reconstruction, factions of white Republicans did try to force black people out of the Grand Old Party. This so-called lily-white movement would ebb and flow well into the 20th century, when President Herbert Hoover, a Republican supported by the KKK, was quoted saying he wanted to make the Republican Party, quote, "lily-white."

DEMBY: Speaking of Hoover, Shereen...

MERAJI: Who was president from 1929 to 1933.

DEMBY: Ooh, some trivia.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Let's talk about the Depression, which fundamentally changed American politics and is also where our story of this seismic change in party allegiance really begins.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A tenth of the population of the United States we formed as a race over a sixth of the unemployed. One out of every four of us was on relief. In vain, we sought for something to restore our confidence, our hope, our courage. Without jobs, we had no money.

DEMBY: As that New Deal propaganda newsreel makes clear, black folks were hit especially hard by the Great Depression. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat from New York, runs for president and wins, but he does so with basically no black support.

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: So African Americans who can vote are suspicious of him.

DEMBY: Leah Wright Rigueur is a professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: He's a Democrat. You know, he talks like a Democrat. But, you know, the most important thing is that the Democratic Party in a lot of people's lives still has this baggage, this weight of being anti-black. And so this plays out in voting tallies.

DEMBY: Oh, and Leah's also the author of a book about the history of black people in the GOP called...

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: "The Loneliness Of The Black Republican."

MERAJI: Good title.

DEMBY: I know - again.

MERAJI: Should we steal it for the episode?

DEMBY: We should, probably.


DEMBY: So anyway, after black folks had this initial side-eying period towards FDR, some cracks start to show in the overwhelming black support for Republicans - at least, at the local level.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: It's slow at first, in part because of the presence of Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party and the continuing presence of that. But Northern Democrats begin to realize that they can control party politics if they are willing to make alliances with African Americans.

MERAJI: It's important to mention that during this time, the Great Migration is in full swing, and it's changing the complexion of cities in the north.

DEMBY: Literally.

MERAJI: So these local Democratic parties that these black Northerners are dealing with are different in some ways than the openly racist Democrats they had to deal with in the South.

DEMBY: Right. And so when FDR runs for election just four years later in 1936, the landscape for black folks looks different - like, a lot different.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: We see a transformative shift where African Americans overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic candidate. It is stunning the level of support and the kind of switch that happens. I mean, it's something that we really do not see in American political history. And this is in part because of, you know, the significance and, really, the impact of the New Deal.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: At Colonial Park in Harlem, as in many other congested areas, WPA workers have constructed a huge swimming pool and are now completing a bath house, which will accommodate 4,100 persons. In this construction project...

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: And so we see that the New Deal programs - many of them are colorblind. And so in being colorblind, African Americans feel the economic benefits and incentives of the New Deal programs and policies.


DEMBY: Under Roosevelt, the Democrats start to become the party of interventionist federal government.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: This idea of the transformation in the social welfare state and the emergence of a social safety net - African Americans do benefit from this.

DEMBY: So Roosevelt's administration is starting to spend serious money to stimulate the dire economy. It starts building infrastructure like bridges and hospitals, a lot of which are in black neighborhoods. And a few of those big construction programs even have quotas that require that they hire a certain amount of black workers because otherwise, unions and white folks would have revolted. Leah says that Eleanor Roosevelt was doing things. She was out there making sort of symbolic if limited gestures toward civil rights. Roosevelt himself was hiring black people in symbolic positions to his administration.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Now, was the New Deal perfect? Absolutely not. There's some ways it's discriminatory. There are some ways that it's implicitly, you know, biased. There are other ways where it is explicitly racist. But in terms of kind of material benefits across the board, it is transformative.

DEMBY: And we should be clear here that Roosevelt was not some anti-racist. He was slow-walking, anti-lynching legislation, for example. He still had to play nice with his fellow Democrats from the South, so there was all sorts of racist stuff baked into his New Deal policies. So, like, when Social Security was enacted, agricultural workers, domestic workers - they were ineligible, which effectively ruled out two-thirds of all black workers in the United States from Social Security benefits. And then, of course, there was the Federal Housing Administration, which was created under the New Deal. And we talk about it a lot on the show because it went a long way to entrenching residential segregation in the U.S.

MERAJI: #HousingSegregation in everything.

DEMBY: Always.

MERAJI: So even though black folks are seeing material benefits from these so-called colorblind Democratic policies, the Democrats are still doing a ton of racist ish (ph).

DEMBY: (Laughter) Yes. Of course. Of course. And at this point, Leah says black folks are still registering as Republicans. But in 1936, black folks start to really vote in national elections for Democrats. And as more black folks start to switch sides in 1936, Republicans aren't really, like, pressed to keep black folks in the party fold. They're not really offering up their own alternatives, you know, to black voters. Instead, Leah says, the GOP was just making token gestures like having black celebrities, like Jesse Owens, the track star, and Joe Lewis, the heavyweight champion, go to black neighborhoods. But that's pretty much it.

MERAJI: Oh, that sounds familiar - Kanye West, anyone?


DEMBY: Trump is my boy. But some members of the GOP were really concerned about the black people who were leaving, so they called up Ralph Bunche. Ralph Bunche, who would go on to become the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in 1950 - he was a complicated dude with a complicated legacy. But in 1939, he's one of the most respected political thinkers in the country, black or otherwise. And officials in the GOP want him to look into what the party might need to do to win back black voters who are starting to leak away. And Bunche is, like, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll do it. But on the condition that when I'm done, you make my findings public. And the Republicans are, like, bet - or, you know, whatever white people in 1939 said when they meant bet.

MERAJI: Say, Mac (ph) - sounds like a square deal.

DEMBY: That's out of sight.

MERAJI: That's on the beam.

DEMBY: Wait. what?

MERAJI: I have no idea. Jess, our producer, Googled old-timey sayings, and this was apparently a thing they used to say back in the day.


DEMBY: Anyway, to research this report, Bunche goes all around the country talking to black folks and just asking them their feelings about both parties and the state of the country. And after his fact-finding mission, he eventually comes back with a damning 137-page report about the realities of racism in the United States. And...

MERAJI: Single-spaced.

DEMBY: Single-spaced (laughter) - single-spaced - very, very small print.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: And he asserts that, you know, while the Democrats are not doing nearly enough to combat these huge racial problems in America and, in some cases, you know, they're making them worse, the Republicans are somehow doing even less.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: So, in fact, in order to win back black voters, the Republican Party would need to ensure policies and programs that, you know, outpace, that are bigger than those offered by the Democratic parties. Bunche points to things like health care, universal health care, points to things like jobs. He points to things like lynching.

MERAJI: And those are all ideas that would actually have a hard time passing today, let alone in 1939.


MERAJI: By the way, technically, lynching is still not a federal offense.

DEMBY: Isn't that wild?


DEMBY: Now, remember. While the Democrats are sort of slowly and cautiously embracing some civil rights stuff, the Republican Party is going after those conservative whites who don't like that shift. And meanwhile, Bunche finds that black people are irritated that the black Republicans out there who do have positions in the Republican Party are not saying anything about racism. They're not speaking out because they don't want to jeopardize their jobs.

MERAJI: Which is something we talked about in the last episode.

DEMBY: Right. Exactly. And so Bunche tells them, basically, you can't have it both ways. You can't try to keep black people in the party and keep playing footsie with all these conservative white folks who hate black people.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: And the Republican Party, first, goes back-and-forth and says, you know, some of these ideas are too radical. Can you tone them down? And Bunche says sure, and he tones them down. And then, you know, the Republican Party passes a resolution in support of Bunche's report and then never releases it.

DEMBY: So in one of the many pivotal moments between the erstwhile party of Lincoln and black voters, the GOP buries Bunche's report.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: In part because they do not want the part that is critical about the Republican Party to be made public. And they certainly don't want, you know, these ideas about the party actually having to be more aggressive than the Democrats on economics and on race. They don't want those things out there. It would actually alienate the party's, you know, increasing interest in winning over Southern voters.

MERAJI: What would have happened to the Republicans and to the United States had they followed Bunche's recommendations? I wonder.

DEMBY: Imagine what the world would be like. One of the arguments a lot of black folks were making, even back then, was that the Republicans were taking black folks for granted.

MERAJI: Which is exactly what you hear all the time about the Democratic establishment today.

DEMBY: Yeah. It's, like, literally the same argument. And Leah said, back then, black newspaper columnists and political thinkers were arguing that there are real, material consequences for having your vote counted on by one party.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: So there's this argument that by remaining kind of a - what we might call a captured constituency, African Americans actually limit their political power - that they don't have as much power because one party begins to take them for granted. And then the other party is either indifferent or, in some cases, actively hostile to whatever agenda that African Americans may have.

MERAJI: So if the parties had to fight for black votes, they might actually be more intentional in their policies toward helping black people.

DEMBY: Right. And in the 1950s, Leah said one of the loudest proponents of this idea that black folks shouldn't be taken for granted, that they should be fought over by both parties was a black icon named Jackie Robinson.


JACKIE ROBINSON: I don't think you realize down here in Birmingham what you mean to us up there in New York. And I don't think that white Americans understand what Birmingham means to all of us throughout this country.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: We never remember Jackie Robinson as this political figure, even though he is highly political and very much a part of, you know, these transformations, these American political transformations that are happening in this era.


ROBINSON: And I think the conscience of America is beginning to awaken.

DEMBY: So by the 1950s, Jackie Robinson is retired from baseball. He's one of the most revered figures in America, especially black America. He's writing this widely syndicated newspaper column. And he's pretty outspoken on civil rights. And around this time, he shook up this weird friendship with Richard Nixon of all people. But their bromance was ultimately doomed. And their falling-out would, in a lot of ways, parallel just how black people would fall out with the GOP more broadly.

MERAJI: I could see how they would meet each other and get to know each other. They're both from Southern California, which is not too far away from the studios I'm talking to you from right now.

DEMBY: And, Shereen, that's where their friendship started. They were probably arguing over where the best tacos were.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: They met at this fancy party and realized that they both grew up near each other. And, Shereen, according to a biography of Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad, it turned out they had other stuff in common. Robinson hated communism. Well, so did Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon was a big sports fan who had been following Jackie Robinson's career. So they became pen pals, basically. They started writing letters to each other a whole lot.

MERAJI: And this is at the time when Nixon is vice president under Eisenhower.

DEMBY: Yup. And so Robinson was becoming more and more politically outspoken on civil rights. And so when the 1960 election rolls around, Nixon is now the Republican nominee for president. And his opponent is John F. Kennedy, who Jackie Robinson doesn't really like. Jackie Robinson met Kennedy once. And JFK apparently told Robinson that he didn't actually know any black people in real life.

MERAJI: Well, that story checks out.

DEMBY: Yeah, that...

MERAJI: #HousingSegregation and everything.

DEMBY: I mean, and just rich and - yeah.

MERAJI: Exactly.

DEMBY: Robinson thought that JFK was too wishy-washy on civil rights. And he kind of had a point. Like, Kennedy was giving all these signals to southerners that he wasn't going to go that hard on civil rights. He had this secret meeting with white Southern Democrats that a lot of people assume meant that he'd struck a deal to be moderate on matters of race if they supported him. And then he picked Lyndon Johnson, who was from Texas, to be his running mate. And Robinson was, like, see? This is why I can't bang with this dude. I don't like him at all.

MERAJI: Yeah. And Lyndon Johnson - if you know anything about him, you know that he loves saying the N-word in his private life.

DEMBY: He loves him some...

MERAJI: N-word, N-word, N-word all the time in a Texas accent.

DEMBY: (Laughter) But so did Jackie Robinson's old buddy, Richard Nixon - just in a Southern California accent. Robinson...


DEMBY: But Robinson thought that Nixon might be kind of persuadable because sometimes he said things that were not terrible about race.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Ladies and gentlemen, the vice president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The whole world is watching us. When we fail to grant equality to all, that makes news - bad news for America all over the world.

MERAJI: It's very rare that President Nixon's calls for equality are remembered. And we mostly talk about his dog whistles and his more blatant bigotry. Like you said, he also liked using the N-word, railing against Jewish people.

DEMBY: It was a campaign full of N-word lovers...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...By which I mean people who like saying the N-word.

MERAJI: (Laughter) That's so bad.

DEMBY: And so Robinson goes out to black communities to campaign for his boy Richard full-time.

MERAJI: This is Jackie Robinson, a race-conscious black Republican making the case for why his party will uplift black Americans.

DEMBY: But then there's this weird turning point in their friendship. So just before the election, Martin Luther King - maybe you've heard of him - gets arrested in Georgia while demonstrating. And Jackie Robinson is calling his boy Richard Nixon to just give Martin Luther King a call in jail just as a gesture of support for the civil rights movement. And Robinson has this tense meeting with Richard Nixon and is pleading for him just to say something - to do anything in support of King. And Nixon is, like, no. I don't want to do that. That'll be grandstanding. So he doesn't touch it. Jackie Robinson was frustrated and basically told Nixon that he didn't deserve to win the presidency, and he left this meeting with Nixon with tears in his eyes. But Jackie Robinson still kept campaigning for Nixon in 1960.

MERAJI: That's interesting. I wonder why. Did Nixon have something on him?

DEMBY: Well, Jackie Robinson was this famously stubborn person. So apparently, he, like, when he dug in his heels, he dug in his heels. Now, the other side of the ballot, John F. Kennedy did make a phone call after that arrest in Georgia to Martin Luther King's pregnant wife, Coretta. Kennedy told her to call him if she needed anything. And almost immediately, the story of that phone call was all over the black press. And all those black folks who like Jackie Robinson, who had been kind of skeptical of Kennedy, started to like him. And when Martin Luther King got into jail, he said himself no Republican had reached out to him.

MERAJI: Huh. And now we know that Nixon lost that election - just barely, but he lost that election.

DEMBY: Just barely. In a bunch of big states, it was massive black turnout for Kennedy that pushed him over the top. So in Illinois, Nixon lost by just 9,000 votes in a state where a quarter million black voters had cast their ballots for Kennedy. Now, Jackie Robinson's family, including his wife, all voted for Kennedy. And in backing Nixon, Jackie Robinson - who was, again, legendarily stubborn - found himself in the position of having very publicly backed the wrong horse. But it hurt Jackie Robinson because he felt that Nixon's mishandling of the King stuff and civil rights in general was bad for the GOP and bad for black folks.

MERAJI: Seems that way.

DEMBY: So by 1964, Lyndon Johnson, the same Texan who Jackie Robinson was really suspicious of, had assumed the presidency after Kennedy's assassination. And Lyndon Johnson, who was pressured by black organizers and activists, takes up the mantle of civil rights in a serious and sustained way to everybody's surprise.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: And should we defeat every enemy and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

DEMBY: Of course, all this stuff was not sitting well with the white folks in the Democratic Party. Some of them had openly defected to the GOP. Meanwhile, there were plenty of places where black folks were not allowed to join the state Democratic Party - like in Mississippi, where organizers like Fannie Lou Hamer had to form their own parties. Here's Fannie Lou Hamer giving a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.


FANNIE LOU HAMER: And if the sitting Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America - the land of the free and the home of the brave?

DEMBY: So the Democratic Party is fully, rancorously becoming the party of civil rights, whether white folks in the Democratic Party like it or not.

MERAJI: Right. The Civil Rights Act was signed by N-word-saying...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: ...President Lyndon Johnson, which was the biggest win for black Americans since Reconstruction.


JOHNSON: Its purpose is national not regional. This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.

DEMBY: And just to be clear, just as there were Democrats who were opposed to the civil rights bill that was on the table, there were Republicans who supported that same bill and who were ultimately critical for it passing. And this is something that Republicans today like to talk about a lot. Like, they say the GOP can't be racist because a higher percentage of Republicans in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than did Democrats. Leah says that when you look at the Civil Rights Act more closely, what matter in the breakdown wasn't party; it was region...


DEMBY: ...Because almost no Southerners - Republican or Democrat - voted in favor of that bill.

Barry Goldwater, a conservative senator from Arizona and the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for the election that same year, talked a lot about how he agonized over his vote. But in the end, he voted against it. And that vote came just a week or so before the Republican presidential convention.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Barry Goldwater, who makes the argument that, in fact, the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional.

DEMBY: Again, here's Harvard University's Leah Wright Rigueur.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Goldwater becomes the party's standard bearer. All of his ideas, even though we know that there is disagreement and lots of, you know, back-and-forth and argument over this, his ideas become one with the Republican Party in the eyes of African American voters. So it's a watershed moment because it's the moment where African Americans just completely exit the Republican Party.

MERAJI: So is Jackie Robinson a Democrat at this point?

DEMBY: Nope. He is still riding with the GOP, even though he had been fighting Goldwater's nomination from the very beginning.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: He has this syndicated column across black newspapers in America. And, you know, dating back to the early 1960s, he is attacking Goldwater and arguing, do not allow Goldwater to become the party standard bearer. Do not allow Goldwater and his supporters, particularly who represent - you know, in the words of Robinson, who represent the worst, the very worst, of the Republican Party - infiltrate the infrastructure or the institution of the Republican Party.

So in essence, Jackie Robinson is sounding the alarm. But he can also see the writing on the wall.

DEMBY: Now Goldwater always denied being a segregationist. Even as avowed Democratic segregationists like Strom Thurmond were literally switching parties to back Goldwater, you know, Goldwater liked to say I used to be a member of the NAACP back in Arizona. He said his platform was not about segregation; it was about states' rights. But he would do campaign events with his surrogates in the South with Confederate flags waving behind them. And Leah says all the racists who were flocking to the GOP to back him were making it very clear to black Republicans that they were no longer welcome in this brand new Grand Old Party.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: We begin to see the Republican National Committee divert money away from minority outreach and into white Southern outreach. I mean, so all of that money is redirected. All of the African Americans who sit on the RNC in various advisory positions are either fired or resigned and replaced with Goldwater people.

MERAJI: Just a decade before, Republicans were apathetic about keeping black people in the fold. But by 1964, they're actively antagonizing black people.

DEMBY: And pushing the black people who want to stay in the party out.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: 1964 Republican National Convention comes. Jackie Robinson is there, along with several other black delegates and alternatives - very few, represent about 1% of all delegates at this conference, lowest that the Republican Party has seen since African Americans have started becoming delegates to the convention.

MERAJI: One percent.

DEMBY: That's like Calabasas. And the black delegates who were at that convention, they were in physical danger.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: So they are being called racial slurs. They're being told to get out. They are being told that they are not welcome. But they are also, you know, getting into scuffles, getting into fistfights. You know, one delegate has his suit set on fire by a Goldwater delegate. And it is representative of a significant shift happening in the party.


DEMBY: Outside of the convention, 50,000 people were protesting Barry Goldwater. And one of them is Jackie Robinson.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Jackie Robinson goes right out with the protesters and is marching along with them. I mean, he compares the atmosphere at the convention to Hitler's Germany and says this is not the Republican Party; this is pseudo-conservatism. This is dangerous. This is violent. But Robinson also makes the decision that he is going to start, you know, Black Republicans for Johnson, and that he is going to campaign hard as hell for Lyndon Johnson's election and that any Republican - any black person that supports Goldwater will be seen as a sellout or a traitor.

MERAJI: Sellout, traitor. I bet Uncle Tom was thrown around...


MERAJI: ...Flashback to our last episode. If you haven't heard it, you should listen. It sounds like there was a brief moment in the '40s and '50s when black voters really were up for grabs for either of the parties. But in the mid-'60s, we really start seeing this demographic makeup of the Democrats and Republicans of today crystallize.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, just the generation before, the Democratic Party was the party of the South, southern conservatives. But by 1964, most black people who could vote pulled the lever for that same party. And that November, Goldwater only got 6% of the black vote.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Because the idea is how can you be loyal - how can you be politically loyal, or how can you politically support someone who says I don't believe that you should have the same rights as me, or somebody who says, you know, I support segregationists, or at least I'm going to allow an open door for segregationists? What does that say about you?

DEMBY: By 1968, Jackie Robinson's old pen pal Richard Nixon, he's running for president again. And this time, he's going after voters in the South and the southwest and in the suburbs, the same voters who were excited by Barry Goldwater and who didn't really like all those changes from the civil rights revolution. So Nixon is talking about federal overreach in local politics. He's talking about law and order in response to riots in inner cities.

MERAJI: Yeah. It's like an orchestra of dog whistles.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Right. This is right after the civil rights. And so the civil rights movement has established this norm that being racist - or prejudiced, as they used to say back then - that was not a good thing. So Nixon's people wanted to capitalize on the racist attitudes of disaffected white voters, but they knew they probably couldn't do it directly. Meanwhile, Jackie Robinson is out here, and he's still a Republican. And he's watching his old buddy sort of do this dog-whistling. And he is pissed.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: We see Robinson very active, very engaged politically, right up until 1968, for his former friend, Richard Nixon, who he had campaigned for in 1960 - campaigned just relentlessly for in 1960. When Richard Nixon gets the nomination, Jackie Robinson quits the Republican Party, marches on down to city hall and changes his political affiliation to an independent.

DEMBY: So he'd been holding out for a long-ass time. But Jackie Robinson finally left the GOP. And when Nixon won the White House in 1968 - his law-and-order, silent-majority strategy worked - Leah said that Jackie Robinson, who was, by this point, in frail health - he was still writing these impassioned, sometimes angry letters to his old friend, trying to get him to do the right thing on civil rights. But Leah said, at this point, though, their communication was mostly one-sided. Robinson didn't have much political clout left. And Nixon, who had basically given up any pretense of caring about any voters who weren't white folks, was basically no longer responding.


DEMBY: You know, Shereen, the strategy of appealing to white voters by using dog whistles to appeal to their racial resentment - you know, it's often called the Southern strategy. But Leah Wright Rigueur says that's kind of a misnomer because for starters, it worked all over the United States. And that playbook was attempted by Goldwater and Nixon, but it was really perfected by Ronald Reagan. Reagan ran for president in 1980, and he talked a lot about states' rights, which voters understood to mean, you know, support against federally mandated policies like busing to integrate schools. Reagan was also importantly a Goldwater conservative back in 1964. He said that he opposed the Civil Rights Act because he thought it was unfair to the South.

MERAJI: Ronald Reagan is also the president who popularized the myth of the welfare queen. He helped racialize the image of entitlement spending. And we can't forget that he's the one who really took President Nixon's war on drugs to the next level. And President Reagan on that campaign trail in 1980 said he wanted to, quote, "make America great again."


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: For those who've abandoned hope, we'll restore hope, and we'll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.

DEMBY: Reagan was way sunnier and more media savvy than either Nixon or Goldwater were. And his strategy was to nod to race, but he foregrounded social issues that were less directly about race. And in doing so, he managed to sort of tie the religious right, who cared about issues like abortion, with white conservatives who were resentful of the changes from the civil rights revolution. And tellingly, it's in the Reagan years and beyond that we really start to see the South go reliably red in presidential elections.

MERAJI: And all this signaling to white people is how we eventually get to a 90% white Republican Party - this GOP of 2019.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, that's a big part of it. And now, you know, the GOP is obviously the party of Donald Trump, who is making appeals to that same universe of white racial resentment. But he's not really trying to camouflage it.

MERAJI: Right. Post-civil rights, racism wasn't as overt in Republican politics on the national stage. There were unspoken rules about what you could say and what you couldn't say. But these days, in those circles, calls for equity are often written off as political correctness. You know, it feels like the PC police get more scrutiny than the actual police.


MERAJI: And it's in those same circles where you often hear the question we started this episode off with - how can people think Republicans are racist when Democrats were the party of the KKK?

DEMBY: You know, that's not even a question for black folks. It's a question aimed at the Republican Party, which, as you said, is 90% white. It's to make them feel better because most black voters already know this. Black voters have always been pragmatic. They've never had perfect, anti-racist choices on either side of the aisle. After emancipation, when Republicans were the best mechanism for advancing the civil rights of black people, black people voted Republican. In the 1960s, when the Democratic Party was the best vessel to advance the civil rights revolution, black people voted for Democrats. Let's not overthink it.


DEMBY: That's our show, y'all. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: Yeah. That sounds like a good idea. And remember; subscribing is free. You don't have to pay money for that.

DEMBY: It's free.

MERAJI: So don't be scared.

DEMBY: Free-ninety-nine (ph).

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Jess Kung and Sami Yenigun. It was edited by Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: Shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and LA Johnson.

MERAJI: Our intern is Angela Vang.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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