Last week, I had the good fortune to attend the Fayette County Republican Party’s monthly breakfast meeting. This event is held on the first Saturday of the month at the IHOP in Fayetteville.
Normally, I am unable to attend these meetings as my kids usually have soccer or softball games. But with the sports season over, I was able to go, and I was so glad I did.
For, I had the opportunity to listen, first-hand, to the founder of the Frederick Douglass Republicans movement — K. Carl Smith.
Mr. Smith attended the breakfast in an effort to encourage members of the Republican Party with the message of Frederick Douglass — who, many argue, was the grandfather of the civil rights movement.
Frederick Douglass, for the first 20 years of his life, was a slave. And he went on to become one of the most prodigious social reformers, orators, writers, and influential thinkers of his time. He was also an admirer of the U.S. Constitution, our Founding Fathers, and a self-professed Republican.
While I knew that up until the late 1960s African Americans were predominantly Republicans, there were two things that I did not understand, in this regard, until I listened to Mr. Smith’s presentation and began reading his book, “Frederick Douglass Republicans: The Movement to Re-ignite America’s Passion for Liberty.”
The first thing I did not understand was why so many African Americans identified themselves with being Republicans back then.
The answer came with the recognition of the principles that identified the Party — principles which resonated with a proud and hopeful people, who struggled to be recognized as part of “We the People.”
These principles include a deep, abiding respect for our country’s founding, and documents, the forefathers, the rule of law, a respect for life in all its forms, from conception to old age, from men to women, and from slave to free; limited government that would simply “protect” the people, rather than “provide” for them in a dependent relationship, and a desire for self-determination.
These principles manifested themselves in how many Republicans championed legislative and civil causes such as the abolition of slavery, segregation, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement, facts that are well chronicled in Mr. Smith’s book.
The fact that Douglas stood as a former slave and passionately heralded each of these principles, while promoting love and forgiveness, even to his former slave owner, is a powerful juxtaposition to some of today’s leaders who seem to feed on feelings of resentment and race-bait on virtually every occasion.
The second thing I did not understand concerning the relationship of African Americans with the Republican Party is what happened that caused the shift in political affiliation which has resulted in many African Americans having an almost instinctual animosity for the Republican Party.
For this answer, Mr. Smith’s personal “conversion” experience was probably most helpful.
Mr. Smith describes growing up with the self-understanding of being black, a Christian, and a Democrat. He recalls the powerful image of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in the center of President Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, solidifying in his mind — and probably many other African Americans of his generation — that Democrats were good and fighting for equal rights.
Despite the fact that Republicans led both acts through Congress, and historically fought for legislation that championed equal rights, the shift began.
When the Democrat Party recognized the shift in culture, it began to strategically disassociate itself from its pro-slavery, pro-segregation [past], and ties to the KKK history, and began promoting itself as the freedom party. This history is also chronicled in Mr. Smith’s book.
So successful was this PR campaign that when I spoke to an elderly man who remembered these days, he shared his theory that all the racist Democrats of that period switched political affiliation and became Republicans.
In the end, Mr. Smith expressed the belief that today’s national Republican Party leaders appear to have strayed from the principled positions of their predecessors, which may be why so many people can believe the false narratives purported about the party.
However, Mr. Smith also expressed hope in that he felt the key to saving our nation was for local groups like our own Fayette County Republican Party to demonstrate the Republican principles expressed, and epitomized by Frederick Douglass, who stands not simply as a black leader, but as an American leader.
As such, anyone, regardless of race, who believes in these principles, can stand with me and proudly say, “I am a Frederick Douglass Republican!”[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]