The Party of Lincoln…Lincoln’s Not From Selma

*** Major disclaimer.. I wrote this when it would have been more relevant and it did not post when I originally tried so I am reposting it now. Hopefully it works***

One of my favorite people in U.S. history that I love to talk about is President Lyndon Johnson. I cannot think of anyone more interesting to study, both for the historical content and his larger than life personality. Experiencing humiliation at an early age, LBJ had a burning desire to prove himself and eventually become president. As he became older and eventually elected to Congress, Johnson became incredibly calculated including “active duty military service” during World War II, which was really him flying in one combat mission and then returning to Congress.

To put Johnson’s calculation into modern terms, Johnson was the Frank Underwood of his time, especially if you were to consider the handful of conspiracy theories about his involvement in JFK’s assassination. LBJ knew how to use politics to his advantage, whether as a member of the Legislative or Executive Branch. Perhaps no two years of Johnson’s political career are better examples of his political mastery than 1964-1965. In those two years, Johnson signed the two most important pieces of Civil Rights legislation since the 14th and 15th Amendments. While many question the amount of influence Johnson actually had on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, I want to point out a tactic that LBJ used to pressure Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois into supporting the Civil Rights Act. Johnson and other Democrats loved to remind Dirksen that he was the leadership of the “party of Lincoln.” Many people today are unaware that the Republican Party used to actually be the party of Civil Rights, especially during the 1960s (I link you to the Senate website with a lot of great background info on the two pieces of legislation. Also selfishly, I wrote a couple of the short bios in the biography section).

I bring this up because I read an article on Politico yesterday about members of the GOP leadership who are skipping out on commemorative fifty year anniversary events in Selma, Alabama this upcoming weekend. The March on Selma was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement and is largely responsible for getting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. In our political system where political calculation is the standard, I find it odd that members of the Republican leadership would miss out on the celebration of an event and bill that their party helped shepherd in, regardless of what else they could have scheduled (probably fundraisers). To me it seems like a no brainer.

Pundits are always talking about political rebranding and probably we hear about it most when talking about the need for the Republican Party to do a better job reaching out to minority voters. Attending the events in Selma would be a step in the right direction. Perhaps the ghost of Lyndon Johnson should remind Republican leadership that they could use politics to their advantage by remembering that the Republican Party is not only the party of Lincoln, but the party of Civil Rights in the 1960s and 1970s.

One possible explanation for not attending is the chilling video from last years fifty year anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights Act where both Democrats and Republicans locked hands to sing “We Shall Overcome.” There should honestly be a disclaimer on this video for how awkward it makes you feel.

Though this probably read like an attack on Republican leadership, I simply wanted to highlight this article because the March on Selma represents a moment in the Civil Rights struggle where race and law directly intersected and led to another intersection a few months later, the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Race and law are two incredibly politicized topics in our country and so I personally find it odd that members of the Republican leadership would pass on an opportunity to use that to their advantage. Let me know what you think!

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2 thoughts on “The Party of Lincoln…Lincoln’s Not From Selma

  1. You weren’t kidding when you said that the video screening “We Shall Overcome” is riddled with awkward moments and facial expressions. The level of discomfort in the room is tangible even as a viewer.

    I find it equally disheartening as you and other black lawmakers listed in the “politico” article do, that key republican leaders did not make it priority to attend this event. It frustrates me. Especially after taking this class do I find it key that Republican white leaders like House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or Majority Whip Steve Scalise would attend, knowing that symbolic and commemorative meetings about our country’s obvious racial history as such are able to manifest and illuminate EXISTING racial tensions while discussing old ones. Simply watching the way some didn’t even participate in the singing of “We Shall Overcome” (maybe from a lack of knowing the lyrics? Probs not) makes me wonder about the progress really made. If only every white Republican, or government leader at that, who is uncomfortable with notions of race could read “White by Law”, and implement that into their political actions…

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    1. I completely agree, it is disheartening that any member of Congress or major government leader could be uncomfortable with race and with our unfortunate past. Particularly because as we have learned from class, essentially everything in our society is interconnected with race, but law is even more so connected! Our lawmakers are not going to lose reelection by attending a commemorative event of the Civil Rights Movement. It seems very pessimistic to say, but I really do feel that if one of these congressional leaders who did not attend were up for reelection and were facing pressure from a challenger, they would have attended the Selma events.

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