Remembering Roosevelt: Reflections on Race and the Republican Party

Article excerpt

The author compares George W. Bush's presidency to Theodore Roosevelt's presidency to illustrate the growing racial divide among African Americans and the Republican Party.

Democrats, sensing that victory was within their reach, waged a spirited contest to select the party's presidential candidate. The Republican in the White House was jokingly called "His Accidency" because of the event that propelled him into the Oval Office. And discussion of America's role in a splintered world, the use of the country's natural resources, and the abuses of greedy corporate executives dominated the campaign.

The year was 1904, and Theodore Roosevelt, the "trust buster"--not George W. Bush, a patron of the corporate class--was the nation's chief executive. Roosevelt, who was elected vice president in 1900, moved into the Oval Office six months into his term when President William McKinley was assassinated.

On the eve of the 1904 election, the fracturing of Colombia, which brought about the creation of Panama and construction of the Panama Canal, was the dominant foreign policy issue. Domestically, Roosevelt championed his "Square Deal" policies, which reflected his affinity for the environment and labor unions and his distrust of big business. (1)

Largely ignored by Roosevelt was the nation's race problem.

Back then, black voters were as closely aligned to the GOP as we are now to the Democratic Party. That loyalty was residual of the goodwill Republicans earned four decades earlier when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years later, a Republican-dominated Congress passed the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States. In 1867 and 1868, radical Republicans pushed Reconstruction acts through Congress that gave Blacks a broad range of rights and protections.

But Reconstruction came to a screeching halt as white Southerners, determined to regain their oppressive control over Blacks, struck a deal with Northern Republicans in 1876. The outcome of the presidential election that year was stalled by a debate about counting of votes in three Southern states: South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. This crisis was resolved by the vote of a special election commission and a backroom deal between Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats. The compromise put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House and control of the South firmly in the hands of Whites who were determined to turn back the clock on the gains that had been made by Blacks. (2)

Theodore Roosevelt was the linear successor of those Republicans, not Lincoln. During his first term in the White House, 350 Blacks were lynched in the United States. (3) Most lynchings, Roosevelt shamelessly and erroneously said, were in retaliation for the sexual assault of white women. (4)

His racism reflected the national mood. At the beginning of the 20th century, the last of the 22 Blacks to serve in Congress during the Reconstruction Era was chased from office. The "separate but equal" dictum of the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision was the law of the land, and Jim Crow laws enacted by Southern legislatures had effectively locked millions of Blacks into a state of neo-slavery. By the time the 1904 presidential campaign got under way, the political disenfranchisement of Blacks was nearly complete.

Against this backdrop, Black leaders such as William Monroe Trotter complained that the black vote was being taken for granted by Republicans, and in the Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. DuBois lamented "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line."

Now a century later, the color line continues to be this nation's most intractable problem. America is in the throes of another presidential campaign in which the Republican incumbent has marginalized the interests of black voters. President Bush is the most recent beneficiary of the race-baiting "Southern strategy" that the GOP used to elect several presidents. …