The Party of Lincoln Is Dead

“Black Vote, Black Power,” a collaboration between Keith Boykin and Word In Black, 
examines the issues, the candidates, and what’s at stake for Black America in the 2024 presidential election.

“Republicans are the party of Abraham Lincoln, but Black people are stuck on the Democratic plantation.” Please stop saying this. Every time someone makes this argument, an angel in heaven loses a few brain cells. 

It’s 2024, and Virginia school board members have voted to put the names of Confederate leaders on two public schools. At the same time, the state’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, has still not signed a Democratic bill passed in February to eliminate tax breaks for the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, Republican Governor Tate Reeves declared April to be Confederate Heritage Month. In Florida, Republicans are trying to punish local officials who remove Confederate monuments. And in Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott has invoked a Confederate theory of secession to justify violating federal law.

After lecturing Black people to “move on” and stop talking about the legacy of slavery, white Republicans just can’t stop celebrating the racist traitors who lost the Civil War nearly 160 years ago.

That’s one of the many reasons why Republicans are no longer the “party of Lincoln.” That party died long ago.

Republican Abraham Lincoln served as president from 1861 until he was assassinated in 1865. For the next 12 years, Republicans led the fight for Reconstruction, creating the Freedman’s Bureau, passing landmark civil rights legislation, and ratifying the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to Black people, and the 15th Amendment granting Black men the right to vote.

Then it all ended. 

Nearly the entire history of Republican legislative and policy accomplishments for Black people rests on the four long years of the Civil War and the 12 short years of Reconstruction that followed it. 

While many noble Black and white Republicans carried on the cause of racial justice for the next century, the Republican Party itself effectively abandoned Black people with the Compromise of 1877 that allowed Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes to take office in exchange for the removal of federal troops that protected African Americans in the South.

In the decades that followed, Republican politicians and judges would enable racist Democrats and Ku Klux Klansmen to terrorize Black communities in the South, drive out Black elected officials, and impose an oppressive new racial caste system called Jim Crow segregation. In fact, for most of the twentieth century, both parties were openly racist.

It took 100 years after the Civil War for the parties to switch roles when a famous Southern Democrat signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and an Arizona Republican condemned it.

So, when Republicans today claim to be the “party of Lincoln,” they want you to focus on what their party did way back in the 1860s and 1870s but ignore what the same party has done since the 1960s and 1970s. 

Some even quote Malcolm X, who rightly condemned both political parties for their racism in a famous speech called “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

But history didn’t end in April 1964, when Malcolm X gave that speech. In the years that followed, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson went on to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and he appointed the first Black Supreme Court Justice

But what have Democrats done for Black people lately?

It was a Democrat, Joe Biden, who selected Kamala Harris as the nation’s first Black vice president and Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In the past few decades, the Democratic Party delivered the first Black president, the first Black vice president, the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, and the first Black party chairman in American history. Democrat Barack Obama signed a federal hate crimes law in 2009 after a Black man named James Byrd was murdered by three white supremacists in Texas. And the last major civil rights bill, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Democratic President Joe Biden in 2022. That’s how far the party has moved from its racist history.

And that’s why no Democratic candidate for president has won the white vote since 1964. Not Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, or Joe Biden.

At the same time, the Republican Party has moved in the other direction, adopting a notorious “Southern strategy” that evolved from loudly using the N-word to quietly deploying “tax cuts” to appeal to white racial resentment. Today’s Republicans love to brag that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by a bipartisan margin, but it was a Republican Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and since that time, Republicans have been blocking every effort to renew the very law that they love to take credit for.

How else do we know the parties switched roles? Because Republicans love the racist Southern Democrats of yesterday. 

Fifty years after Strom Thurmond bolted from the Democratic Party to run for president as a segregationist, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott openly embraced him.

And when Obama tried to remove racist Southern Democrat Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill, it was Trump who reversed him. In fact, two of Donald Trump’s first official acts as president were to hang a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office and to visit Jackson’s Tennessee slave plantation. 

Why would a 21st-century Republican president show so much love for a 19th-century racist Democrat?

It’s the same reason why Trump vetoed a national defense bill so he could preserve a Confederate general’s name on a military base in North Carolina. And why Republicans in 2023 fought to protect a Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The party of Abraham Lincoln, who once appealed to “the better angels of our nature” and fought the Civil War to preserve the American union, is dead. The party of Donald Trump, who appeals to the worst demons of our disposition, and seeks to destroy the union, is alive and kicking.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times–bestselling author, TV and film producer, and former CNN political commentator. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, Keith served in the White House, cofounded the National Black Justice Coalition, cohosted the BET talk show My Two Cents, and taught at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He’s a Lambda Literary Award-winning author and editor of seven books. He lives in Los Angeles.

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