Oxford AASC: Democratic Party

Democratic Party

One of two major political parties in the United States; long dominated by white Southerners until the 1930s and 1940s, when Democrats began to advocate civil rights legislation and other measures of interest to African Americans, resulting in a massive shift in the political allegiance of black voters.

The Democratic Party, formed in the late 1820s, is the world's oldest existing political party. Together with the Republican Party, which appeared during the 1850s, it makes up the American two-party system. In many respects, the two parties have reversed nineteenth-century positions, and African Americans, who strongly identified as Republicans through the 1920s, have become equally firm since the 1940s in their commitment to the Democrats.

During the nineteenth century virtually no African Americans supported the Democratic Party. The Democrats were opposed to a strong central government, to reform measures, and to blacks. During the antebellum era the party drew much of its strength from white Southerners, who staunchly defended the institution of slavery and feared that free blacks would incite slave rebellions. In any case, no slaves and few free blacks had the right to vote. The main sources of Democratic strength in the North were Midwesterners born in the South and Irish and German immigrants.

In many Northern cities immigrants competed with free blacks for jobs. They believed that emancipation would bring a vast influx of freed blacks, resulting in even stiffer competition for work. Such concerns led them to support the Democratic Party. Northern immigrants and white Southerners regarded the Republicans and their predecessors, the Whigs, as wild-eyed reformers enamored of radical social experiments, including the prohibition of alcoholic beverages and the abolition of slavery.

The Democratic Party had from its beginnings opposed both reformism and a powerful central government. The party resisted any interference with the South's “peculiar institution,” although there were some antislavery Democrats. In 1840, for example, former president and New York Democrat Martin Van Buren ran for president on the ticket of the short-lived, antislavery Liberty Party. In general, however, the party reflected the dominance of its proslavery Southern wing.

The American Civil War (1861–1865) seriously weakened the Democratic Party. In the North, Republicans vilified it as the party of disunion. In the South, the victorious Union Army effectively dismantled the Democratic power structure. Former slaves flocked to the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. During Reconstruction, African American votes helped elect Republican governments in the former Confederate states. In the North, a few radical Republicans, such as Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens, envisioned a broad transformation of Southern society. But they were repeatedly stymied, for example, in their efforts to secure a significant redistribution of farmland for the benefit of the freed slaves.

During the late 1860s and early 1870s a steady stream of news reports underscored the corruption of the South's Republican-dominated state governments. Northerners, faced with the challenges of rapid industrial growth and renewed immigration, quickly lost interest in the problems of the South and the recently freed African Americans. Many Northerners wanted to put the turmoil of the war behind them. The Republican Party largely abandoned its reform heritage and became a staunch defender of big business.

Although Frederick Douglass deplored the Republicans' increasing conservatism, he never abandoned the party. But a number of other African American leaders did, including Boston political figure and author James Monroe Trotter, who defected to the Democrats in 1882. Black Democratic clubs began to appear in some Northern cities. In 1898 African American voters in New York City founded the United Colored Democracy, and two years later the Negro Jefferson League was organized in St. Louis, Missouri.

But the Democratic Party in the South remained unsympathetic to African Americans. As Reconstruction drew to a close, white Democrats—styling themselves “Redeemers” and in many cases supported by Ku Klux Klan violence—regained power in all of the former Confederate states. Indeed, the South was so dominated by the Democratic Party that it became known as the solid South. White Democrats implemented a wide range of laws that enforced Jim Crow social segregation and insisted that they alone understood how to deal with the South's “Negro problem.”

A number of prominent African Americans, such as Henry McNeal Turner in Georgia, formed tentative alliances with white Democratic politicians and, in some cases, won minor political offices. But the rise of the People's Party, or Populists, in the 1890s transformed Southern politics. The Populists, who sought a class-based alliance of poor whites and poor blacks, terrified the Southern political establishment. White Democrats quickly ended their interracial alliances and enacted a series of laws that disenfranchised almost the entire Southern black electorate.

During the so-called Progressive Era of the 1900s and 1910s, outspoken reform wings emerged in both major parties. These reformers were at odds with the conservative attitudes of the party establishment. But they also generally accepted the pervasive, so-called scientific racism of the time, which posited, for example, that people of African descent were innately inferior to northern Europeans. Progressive Southern Democrats, such as Georgia governor and future senator Hoke Smith, actively supported black disenfranchisement, and Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner to be elected president since the Civil War, segregated the restaurants and restrooms of federal government buildings.

During the 1910s and 1920s, however, the Great Migration of African Americans leaving the South helped encourage major changes in the party. Few Southern blacks could vote, but once they settled in the North, where they were not legally disenfranchised, they became an important political factor. Northern blacks, who were heavily concentrated in major cities, often played a key role in winning elections. The political machines that ran those cities were largely Democratic, but despite their party's traditional hostility to blacks, they began to reach out to the new black electorate in order to win elections. Gradually the Democratic Party in the North became more receptive to African American interests.

A factor even more important than urban political machines in drawing blacks to the party was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. In contrast to the indifferent Republican response to the Great Depression, Roosevelt offered activism, reassuring confidence, and material assistance. African Americans, who were particularly hard hit by the depression, welcomed such New Deal initiatives as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

These initiatives weakened blacks' long-standing allegiance to the Republican Party. In 1928, for example, Chicago's black voters had sent Republican Oscar Stanton DePriest to the House of Representatives. He was the first black congressman seated in twenty-eight years and the first to be elected from a Northern state. But in 1934 he was defeated by Arthur Mitchell, a black Democratic challenger. In the 1936 election a majority of black voters aligned themselves with Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.

President Roosevelt and his Democratic successor Harry S. Truman undertook several initiatives that were clearly appeals for black political support. After pressure from A. Philip Randolph, Roosevelt in 1941 created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce policies against discrimination in defense-industry hiring. In 1946 Truman established the President's Committee on Civil Rights, and two years later he signed Executive Order 9981, which began the integration of the United States armed forces.

Yet the party remained split between a more liberal Northern wing, epitomized by such leaders as Roosevelt and New York senator Robert F. Wagner, and a conservative Southern wing, epitomized by South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond. In 1948 national Democratic leaders, recognizing the pivotal importance of the urban black vote, for the first time included a civil rights plank in the party platform. The party's stance on civil rights was a decisive factor in rallying black support for the beleaguered Truman. Conversely, the civil rights plank caused Southern delegates to walk out of the party convention. Thurmond briefly split the party by running for president on the short-lived States Rights Democratic Party (or Dixiecrat) ticket, but he could not prevent Truman's reelection.

The civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s spurred further change in the Democratic Party. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic Party stood for an activist federal government willing to implement sweeping social and political reforms. For African Americans, the most important of these efforts were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

African Americans, notably the charismatic Fannie Lou Hamer, played an active role in transforming the Democratic Party in the South. In 1964 Hamer and other African Americans and a number of white liberals organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge Mississippi's whites-only Democratic organization. Although they were denied seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in 1968 the National Democratic Party, an organization of black Alabama Democrats, successfully unseated the state's all-white delegation.

In 1964 South Carolina's Thurmond left the party for good and became a Republican. During the next thirty years more and more white Southerners joined him. The once solidly Democratic South became a Republican stronghold. But African American voters in the North and South have remained loyal Democrats, and an increasing number have won election to state and national office. There has also been a steady increase in the number of black Democratic mayors of American cities. Thomas (Tom) Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles, California, served from 1973 to 1993. Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, served from 1983 until his death from a heart attack in 1987, and David Norman Dinkins, New York City's first black mayor, served from 1989 to 1993.

Since the 1980s there have been a small number of prominent black Republicans, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But most African Americans remain loyal Democrats. African Americans vote Democratic at a rate higher than any other racial or ethnic group. In the 1992 presidential campaign, for example, an estimated 82 percent of blacks voted for Democratic candidates. For many blacks, Jesse Louis Jackson's spirited but unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 epitomize the hopes and shortcomings of the Democratic Party. African American political figures have unquestionably made gains in recent years, but have been less successful in their efforts to make racial inequality a central issue in Democratic election campaigns and policy debates.

See also Abolitionism in the United States; American Electoral Politics, Blacks in; Blacks in the American Military; Free Blacks in the United States; Slavery in the United States.Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center

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