Clarence Henderson is a proud, self-proclaimed HBCU grad and a civil rights protestor from the ‘60s. He was also used by the Republicans last week at its convention to perpetrate another half-truth about the Republican Party. And every time it happens, it’s important that someone chime in to correct it.
“I’m a Republican, and I support Donald Trump,” Henderson said in his video. “If that sounds strange, you don’t know your history.” Well, it does sound strange, and I do know history. Enough of it to know why what Henderson went on to say was extremely misleading.
First, here’s some context as to why Donald Trump at the RNC didn’t mention Black Lives Matter or the Kenosha, Wisconsin shooting of Jacob Blake. But he loves Clarence Henderson and those like him.
Throughout the campaign, polls show Blacks hover around the 90 percent mark AGAINST Trump. Henderson is an outlier. That’s why you saw so many Blacks (many of them former athletes) speaking up for Trump at the RNC. They represent a micro-minority. As far as people of color go, polls show Trump has about 30 percent of both the Latino and Asian voters in his fold. He may be maxed out there. But among Blacks, there is hope for new votes. So Trump is mining and chipping away looking for those Black voters willing to march to their inner Clarence Thomas. Or Clarence Henderson.
Diversity of thought is what Republicans like to call it. And at the RNC it was on full display.
“It was a Republican party that passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery,” Henderson said proudly. “It was a Republican party that passed the 14th Amendment, giving Black men citizenship. It was a Republican party that passed the 15th Amendment, giving Black men the right to vote.”
Yes, it was the Republican Party. But with the heart of today’s Democratic Party.
Henderson wasn’t necessarily lying, but at best he was giving the American public only half the history. Looking back at the past from today’s perspective, you just need to scratch out the word “Republican” and put the formal name “Democratic.” (Just don’t use the rhetorically-biased term “Democrat,” the preferred language of the GOP).
The simple fact is Republicans in the times of those historic constitutional milestones are more aligned with Democratic party members of today. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 to end slavery and promote equality for Blacks. But when Lincoln took over the party, he was a more moderating force, which in those days would mean you believed Whites were superior, but you didn’t like slavery. (Think about that one for a moment).
Lincoln’s idea was to limit the spread of slavery with the country’s westward expansion. And that view was enough to draw support from the likes of Frederick Douglass, and enough voters to win a four-way race for the presidency. In those days, the Republicans were seen as more intellectual and high minded about government and Democracy. Indeed, how Republicans fought for the amendments mentioned by Henderson is accurate.
But out of context.
Because Lincoln was Republican, the former confederate states were the “Solid South” of the Democratic Party. To be a Democrat in those days was to be anti-intellectual, populist and racist. It lasted longer than you’d think. As the Democratic standard bearer, William Jennings Bryan ran three times unsuccessfully for president as a Democrat in 1896, 1900, 1908. He’s the man who opposed evolution, was decimated by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey trial, and supported openly racist candidates. A Democrat.
Then it all flipped.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a Democrat, and his views on race were far from progressive. It took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to lobby Roosevelt to support an anti-lynching bill in Congress. But FDR gave in to the Southern Democrats and folded. It wasn’t until after his death, when Vice President Harry Truman succeeded FDR in 1945 that a new Democratic party emerged. Truman’s desegregating the military in 1948 was a big first step, then later he was nominated for president, the DNC platform moved toward a much more progressive stand on civil rights.
And that was the point where the directions clearly changed.
The Democrats stopped acting like today’s Republican and started acting like today’s Democrats. And the Republicans of the past began their evolution into the Republicans of today, a very different Republican Party even compared to Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or Bush. It’s like seeing the chart of the man evolving backward in time.
Today’s Republicans say yes to a wall, no to immigrants. They say no to taxes, and yes to huge deficits. Today’s Republicans are climate deniers, COVID deniers, BLM deniers, Kenosha deniers.
On the Party of Lincoln point, they shouldn’t be history deniers.
Emil Guillermo is a writer, commentator, and podcaster. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.