Friday, July 5, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Frederick Douglass, the most important African-American in the 19th century, was loyal to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln’s day, even when it turned disloyal to him. I wonder how he would feel about today’s Grand Old Party?
“I knew that however bad the Republican party was, the Democratic party was much worse,” he wrote in his third autobiography, published in 1881.
How things have changed. The party of Lincoln was the progressive party of its day. While the Democratic Party was, as Douglass, an escaped slave who rose to be a leading abolitionist journalist and Lincoln confidant, described it, “the party of reaction and the chosen party of the old master class.”
Today, in one of history’s biggest ironies, resistance to measures intended to secure the hard-won victories of the Civil War and civil rights movement are coming from the GOP, even against measures that past Republicans made possible.
That thought came to mind as the Supreme Court’s five Republican appointees recently pulled some important teeth out of 1965 Voting Rights Act.
By a 5-to-4 majority, the Supremes struck down the law’s “preclearance” section. It required nine states, mostly in the South, and some jurisdictions in seven others to get federal approval before any proposed election changes can go into effect.
Preclearance was enacted to block gerrymandering, poll taxes, literacy tests and other shenanigans aimed at suppressing black votes after the fall of Reconstruction, a period of racial conflicts that American politics still struggle to resolve.
With the civil rights reforms pushed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, himself a former racial conservative from Texas, a backlash caused South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and numerous other southern Democrats to find a new haven in the party of their ancient foe, Lincoln.
In a grand understatement, Chief Justice John Roberts declared “Our country has changed” in writing the 5-to-4 decision, which invited Congress to pass legislation that “speaks to current conditions.”
Good luck with that. The current condition of Congress is rife with partisan polarization and dysfunction. GOP leaders want to mend broken relations with minorities with voting rights and immigration reforms. Yet even House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has been remarkably unable to rely on the votes of his own party’s insurgent tea party conservatives to cooperate.
Some of us are old enough to remember how Republicans, led by Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, hustled up enough crucial votes for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to dodge threatened filibusters by southern Democrats.
At first, Dirksen was reluctant, according to the dramatic behind-the-scenes account in a new book titled “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy” by history Professor Gary May of the University of Delaware.
But when peaceful demonstrators were brutally attacked in front of TV cameras in Selma, Ala., by state troopers and vigilantes in March 1965, May writes, an infuriated Dirksen told associates that he was willing to accept “revolutionary” legislation.
Republican support of voting rights didn’t end there. When renewal of preclearance faced a procedural logjam in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1982, May recalls, GOP Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas fashioned a compromise that extended preclearance for 25 years. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law.
“The works around here get gummed up pretty easily,” May quotes Dole as saying. They still do.
Even though the act was extended again with very strong bipartisan support in 2006, it’s hard to imagine today’s congressional GOP leaders playing a similarly strong role in revamping it, although I am eager to be pleasantly surprised.
Meanwhile, Texas has wasted no time in pushing for a new voter ID law that the Justice Department has opposed. Almost two dozen new state laws and executive orders in more than a dozen states, Attorney General Eric Holder says, made it significantly harder for eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.
Even so, black turnout in November exceeded all expectations partly, I would argue, because of anger and concern over reports of voter suppression schemes. As Douglass might say: ’Tis better to woo the black vote than to try to suppress it.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.