The political realignment of black voters that began 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 African Americans either left the Republican fold or were effectively pushed out of the party because of its increasingly ambiguous stance on civil rights. By the end of this era, the hostility to black voters in both major parties in the South combined with a re-emergent activism among younger African Americans had laid the groundwork for a mass movement in the early and mid-1930s of black voters to the northern Democratic Party.166
Weakened to the point of irrelevancy, southern Republicans after 1900 embraced Jim Crow as a way to curry favor with the political power structure. They abandoned black voters in order to preserve their grasp on issues as basic as local patronage jobs dispensed by the national party. Through political factions such as the “lily white” movement, which excluded blacks, and “black and tan” societies, which extended only token political roles to African Americans, the party ceased to serve as an outlet for the politically active cadre of southern black voters.
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 Republicans needed southern white voters more than they needed southern black voters. “Equalitarian ideals,” explained a leading historian, “had to be sacrificed to the exigencies of practical politics.”167
As late as the 1920s, however, some Republican officials were still trying to find a middle path. 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 stoking racial tensions. “The dilemma,” writes historian Lewis L. Gould, “was that the politics that spoke to one group alienated the other.”168
The party tried to walk a fine line. GOP Presidents in the 1920s hosted black leaders to discuss touchstone issues such as anti-lynching legislation. But they did little to pass that legislation for fear of alienating southern whites. The party’s relative lack of enthusiasm for challenging segregation in the civil service, enforcing the reduction clause of the Fourteenth 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.”169
The Republicans’ presidential nominee in 1928, Herbert Hoover, cast more doubt in the minds of black voters.170 For one thing, 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 black families, Hoover then catered to the lily-white delegations at the Republican National Convention. The platform ignored the interests of black voters, except for 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 Southerners perceived negatively because he was Catholic and was believed to represent ethnic and African-American 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.171
The 1928 presidential campaign marked a significant step toward the eventual black exodus from the Republican Party. 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.172 Meanwhile, the party of Lincoln seemed unresponsive to the changing electorate and lacked a strategy for adjusting to new political realities. The Great Migration made black-white relations no longer primarily an issue for the South. The new urban America offered a core constituency of the coalition that would propel Democrats into power in the 1930s.173
166Fauntroy, 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.
167Sherman, 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.
168Lewis L. Gould, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (New York: Random House, 2003): 224–225.
169Annual Report of the NAACP (1926): 32; cited in Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 224.
170For more on Hoover and African Americans, see Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 224–259.
171For 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).
172Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 232.