Rand Paul’s Evolving History of the Civil Rights Movement

‘I didn’t really go there to mention the things that don’t make us look good in the Republican Party.’

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So why didn't Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul mention the "Southern strategy" when delivering his view of the history of the civil rights movement last week at a Howard University speech? Because talking about it would have made Republicans look bad, he said this morning, which was not the point of his speech. Points for after-the-fact forthrightness, I suppose.

"The Southern strategy I didn't mention – I didn't really go there to mention the things that don't make us look so good in the Republican Party, so that was one reason for not bringing up the Southern strategy," he said with a chuckle this morning at a press breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

He went on to say that some of the criticism of the GOP post-Southern strategy is "fair and some of it's unfair." He went on specifically to say that "people have told me" that "Ronald Reagan's talking about ‘welfare queens' was racist," as was the 1988 ad George H. W. Bush ran against Mike Dukakis featuring Willie Horton (or "Willie Brown," as Paul initially recalled it). "There may be some argument," he conceded that "some of the tactics, through the years" are racist.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Maybe his performance at Howard – where he gave a very selective recounting of the history of the civil rights movement – wasn't as cynical as it seemed; maybe he really just doesn't get it. I suppose it's possible that he falls into the category of Southerners who had other concerns growing up and never gave much thought to civil rights until he decided to become the new point man on black outreach. In some ways he seems like the college student who thinks having read a history book – or article – makes him a historian but doesn't know what he doesn't know. Except he can't possibly be that dumb.

Nevertheless, his evolving account of the civil rights movement and black politics portrays someone learning on the fly. Last week at Howard, for example, he said that "from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican." He flatly contradicted that assertion this morning. "I was completely blasted by some on the left wing for being out of touch and knowing nothing about the Southern strategy and that's why African-Americans became Democrats, which is just flat out wrong," he said, going on to cite estimates that blacks voted two-thirds for Herbert Hoover in 1928 but then flipped to vote in the same numbers for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and subsequently stayed with Democrats. "For people to tell me the reason Republicans are hated by the African-American community is because of the Southern strategy, it may have cemented the change, but the change did happen in the Great Depression," he said.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Southern strategy is probably exactly why blacks "hate" the GOP – they might have switched allegiance under FDR, but the Southern strategy made things personal. In any case, this week's Rand Paul might want to discuss with last week's Rand Paul whether African-Americans supported the GOP "for a century."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

And while last week Paul portrayed Democrats as a party of relentless civil rights obstructionism, this morning he was able to list a series of reasons blacks moved to the Democratic Party. They voted for FDR along with everyone else in 1932 and 1936, then "when Truman endorses civil rights in 1948, the Dixiecrats break off, but the vote becomes overwhelmingly [an] African-American vote for Truman. He also integrated the armed services. So you get to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you got 90 percent of the people, African-Americans, voting for LBJ."

That's a somewhat different history than he gave last week. And what he fails to note is that starting in the mid-1960s conservative whites start leaving the Democratic Party in droves while blacks stay put. Why? The Southern strategy. If it cemented an existing change, it did so with intent and it did so enduringly.

And it's a bit much to sweep aside nearly 50 years of history as merely "cementing" an underlying trend. I'd venture to say that unwavering contemporary black support for Democrats is more informed by experience with the Southern strategy than lingering loyalty to FDR. Remember that the Southern strategy isn't ancient history – you could see it in Newt Gingrich's dismissal of President Obama as the "food stamp president" and you could see it in the Romney campaign's specious assertion that President Obama wanted to "gut" welfare reform.

If anything is getting in the way of 21st century African-Americans embracing the GOP's civil rights heritage, it's the 21st century Republican Party. Rand Paul might want to keep that in mind the next time he tries to deliver a history lecture.

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