The political realignment of black voters set in motion at the close of Reconstruction gradually accelerated in the early 20th century, pushed by demographic shifts such as the Great Migration and by black discontent with the increasingly conservative racial policies of the Republican Party in the South. A decades-long process ensued in which blacks were effectively pushed outside or left the Republican fold because of its increasingly ambiguous racial policies. By the end of this era, the major parties’ policies and a re-emergent activism among younger African Americans positioned blacks for a mass movement in the early and mid-1930s to the northern Democratic Party.167
Gradually, African-American leaders at the national level began to abandon their loyalty to the GOP. While the party’s political strategy of creating a competitive wing in the postwar South was not incompatible with the promotion of black civil rights, by the 1890s party leaders were in agreement that this practical political end could not be achieved without attracting southern whites to the ticket. “Equalitarian ideals,” explains a leading historian, “had to be sacrificed to the exigencies of practical politics.”168
However, mutually exclusive opportunities presented themselves to the national Republican Party as late as the 1920s. On the one hand, GOP officials sensed an opportunity to present the party as a moderate alternative to the segregationist policies endorsed by the outgoing Woodrow Wilson administration— to make inroads into the growing urban centers of African-American voters. On the other hand, in campaign efforts against northern Democrats such as Al Smith of New York, Republicans perceived the chance to cultivate southern white voters by adopting racially conservative positions. “The dilemma,” writes historian Lewis L. Gould, “was that the politics that spoke to one group alienated the other.”169 The party chose a middle course. GOP Presidents in the 1920s hosted black leaders to discuss touchstone issues such as anti-lynching legislation, though they did little more for fear of alienating southern whites. The party’s relative lack of enthusiasm for changing segregation practices in the civil service, enforcing the reduction clause of the 14th Amendment, or endorsing fully the enactment of anti-lynching legislation convinced many African Americans that the political priorities of the party of Lincoln were no longer compatible with those of the black community. At its 1926 national convention, the NAACP pointedly resolved, “Our political salvation and our social survival lie in our absolute independence of party allegiance in politics and the casting of our vote for our friends and against our enemies whoever they may be and whatever party labels they carry.”170
The Republicans’ presidential nominee in 1928 cast more doubt in black voters’ minds.171 Herbert Hoover’s handling of the relief efforts after the devastating 1927 Mississippi River floods disappointed the African-American community. Tone deaf to issues that resonated with blacks, Hoover catered to the lily-white delegations at the Republican National Convention. The platform contained no substantive concessions to black interests besides a perfunctory sentence about the necessity for anti-lynching legislation. Furthermore, during the campaign Hoover devised a southern strategy against Democratic nominee Al Smith, who was perceived negatively in the South because he was Catholic and was believed to represent ethnic and black interests. By courting the racially conservative white vote with tacit support for the segregationist status quo, Hoover fractured the solid South and captured the electoral votes of five southern states: Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas.172
The 1928 presidential campaign marked a significant step toward the eventual black exodus from Republican ranks. Though a majority of African Americans cast their vote for Hoover, black defection from the party was greater than in any prior election. Manufacturers of public opinion within the black community, including the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American, supported Al Smith.173 Meanwhile, the party of Lincoln seemed unresponsive to the changing electorate and lacked a strategy for adjusting to new political realities. “As Negroes moved to the North and to the cities, they became part of the new urban constituency,” explains historian Richard Sherman. “Just as America had ceased to be predominantly Anglo-Saxon, so had black-white relations ceased to be primarily a problem for the South…In short, Republicans failed to develop a program which could attract major elements of the new, urban America,” a constituency that formed the core of the Roosevelt New Deal coalition that propelled Democrats into power in the 1930s.174
167Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote: 41, 42–55. See also Nancy Weiss’s treatment in Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983): 209–235.
168Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 256. A significant break between the black elite and the Republican Party occurred in the aftermath of the August 1906 Brownsville affair. A garrison of African-American soldiers stationed near Brownsville, Texas, were accused (on the basis of scant evidence) of several shootings in the town. Three companies of black troops (167 enlisted men) were discharged without honor by recommendation of the U.S. Army command. President Theodore Roosevelt swiftly approved the findings. When Republican Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio (a would-be contender for the 1908 party’s presidential nomination) rose to defend the accused and criticized the White House, Roosevelt bristled and refused to reconsider the case. Aside from the injustice to the dishonorably discharged troops, the most lasting legacy was the alienation of a number of young black leaders, including Mary Church Terrell and Archibald Grimke.
169Lewis L. Gould, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (New York: Random House, 2003): 224–225.
170Annual Report of the NAACP (1926): 32; cited in Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 224.
171For more on Hoover and African Americans, see Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 224–259.
172For an insightful analysis of Hoover’s southern strategy, see Donald J. Lisio, Hoover, Blacks & Lily-Whites: A Study of Southern Strategies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
173Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 232.