Lincoln's Lost Legacy: The Republican Party and the African American Vote, 1928-1952

Article excerpt

Simon Topping, Lincoln's Lost Legacy: The Republican Party and the African American Vote, 1928-1952. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008. Pp. 320. Cloth $65.00.

The leadership of the Republican Party generally resisted civil rights rhetoric and policies after 1968. The roots for this reticence, however, stretched much further back as Simon Topping demonstrates in Lincoln's Lost Legacy. While the Grand Old Party (GOP) abandoned black voting rights after the Reconstruction era and mostly ignored the demands for political accountability that African Americans made before the 1920s, its ambivalence and uncertainty in the face of the Great Migration, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal agenda, and the reemergence of the black freedom struggle in the 1950s were equally profound. Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover's failure to have the Republican Party take strategic advantage of the large black populations emerging in northern cities in the 1920s continued a legacy of neglect, if not outright hostility, towards black political empowerment in the first half of the 20th century.

Topping's analysis begins with the three Republican administrations in the 1920s. Harding and Coolidge's indifference to the economic and political needs of African Americans, especially in the South; the party's unwillingness to distance itself from the Ku Klux Klan during the decade; and Hoover myopia and insularity as African Americans suffered through the worst years of the Great Depression served as the basis for black political alienation. African Americans felt the negative economic consequences of Hoover's laissez faire policies most sharply, and in northern cities their ballots began to shift toward the Democratic Party as early as 1932. The success of New Deal programs in offering relief from unemployment, hunger, and despair reversed the historical trends as Franklin Roosevelt won nearly 70 percent of African American votes in 1936.

Topping argues that Hoover's failure in particular introduced an era of profound confusion on race and civil rights issues among Republicans in the 1930s. The Republican candidate in 1936, Alfred Landon, made few overtures to black voters and the censoring of Ralph Bunche's report for the Republican National Committee in 1939 on southern black disfranchisement demonstrated the depths of the divisions within the party on civil rights issues. Wendell Wilkie and Thomas Dewey attempted to resolve the debate in favor of ideas about a broadly inclusive democracy in their campaigns in 1940 and 1944. But their repeated failures to reach out to black voters only provided the mortar for a new coalition between conservative Republicans and southern Dixiecrats that further isolated the few remaining black Republicans by the election of 1952. …