Political Hay

The Culture of Lincoln

The journeys of Strom Thurmond and Jeremiah Wright.

By 4.8.08

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Strom Thurmond was a white man who once believed in the doctrine of segregation and was assailed as a white racist. Jeremiah Wright is a black man who now believes in what is called the "theology" of black liberation and has been attacked as a black racist.

Thurmond gained fame as the Democratic Governor of South Carolina, walking out of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 to run as the Dixiecrat candidate for president against Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Losing, he stayed inside the party of his ancestors, the party of slavery and segregation, moving on to the United States Senate. There, as a member of the Democratic Party's Senate majority, he mounted a ferocious resistance against the second coming of civil rights legislation. Legislation passed almost a century earlier in the wake of the Civil War by the Republican Party, then systematically ignored or dismantled by Democrats as they created what historian Eric Foner called a "military force" for the party known as the Ku Klux Klan and, to enforce their racism, a system of segregation.

For 24 hours and 18 minutes in August of 1957 Democrat Thurmond, a product of that culture, held the Senate floor in a dramatic filibuster against the proposed civil rights bill supported by the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon. Losing, Thurmond, the segregationist champion who was on record as saying he would never agree to the mixing of the races, kept fighting. By 1964 he was still fighting, losing yet again in his effort to shut down a civil rights bill, this time the historic 1964 legislation that granted African Americans all the rights they had been granted by similar legislation passed almost a hundred years earlier. Angrily, on September 17, 1964, Thurmond left the party of his ancestors and joined the Republican Party.

Wright came relatively late to national renown. A Philadelphian, Wright had been inspired by Democratic President John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural call to "ask what you can do for your country," dropping his student deferment to join the U.S. Marines, transferring eventually to the U.S. Navy. Serving as a cardiopulmonary technician at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Wright eventually left the service to get his both his B.A. and a master's in English from Howard University. After that he moved toward the ministry, getting his master's from the University of Chicago Divinity School and his Doctor of Ministry degree from Union Theological Divinity School. By 1972 he had accepted the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he has recently gained national attention as the now just-retired pastor of Senator Barack Obama, the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Wright's sermons, as revealed by DVDs sold by his own church, reveal his staunch support for what is called "black liberation theology."

NOW. WHAT HAPPENED TO THESE two men in terms of what Martin Luther King once called the "moral arc" of their lives? What is the question that the national mainstream media is ducking? It's not hard to figure out.

A mere ten years after joining the party of Lincoln, Thurmond, the legendary segregationist who was vehement about not mixing races, hired in 1974 a young intern named Armstrong Williams. A black man. A black man who was mixed into the world of whites on Thurmond's staff by Thurmond himself, going on to be a key advisor to Thurmond before launching a successful career as a prominent media figure in his own right. By the time he died in 2003, shortly after leaving a record-breaking almost fifty years in the Senate, Thurmond was in fact a thorough-going integrationist, replete with blacks on his Senate staff while enrolling his daughter in an integrated school in South Carolina. Thurmond, perhaps to his own surprise, had become a race mixer himself.

Given a choice between Republican Richard Nixon and Alabama's Democrat Governor George Wallace in 1968, when Wallace, himself a notorious segregationist was running for president on a third party ticket, Thurmond picked Nixon. The same Nixon who said during his campaign that "Southern Republicans must not climb aboard the sinking ship of racial injustice. Any Republican victory that would come from courting racists, black or white, would be a defeat for our future in the South and our party in the nation." Elected, Thurmond found Nixon invoking the culture of Lincoln from day one of his administration, saying in his inaugural: "No man can be fully free while his neighbor is not. To go forward at all is to go forward together. This means black and white together, as one nation, not two. The laws have caught up with our conscience."

Within less than a month of his taking office, the Nixon Justice Department was filing suits to bring, Lincoln-style, the full force of the federal government to bear desegregating Southern schools. By the time Watergate brought him down, Nixon had broken the back of white segregation once and for all in America's Southern schools and created "affirmative action" (a program now believed by conservatives to have had the net effect of prolonging racism as opposed to ending it). White segregation, a movement of which Thurmond was literally once one of the most famous faces in America, was dead. Thurmond remained a Nixon supporter to the end. He was not perfect -- but he arrived, even supporting the idea of making Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday.

Contrast this with the moral arc of the now just-retired Reverend Wright. Starting off enthusiastically heeding JFK's call to "ask what you can do for your country," Wright ends his career championing the polar opposite of white segregation -- "black liberation theology." Like Thurmond in full segregationist mode, Wright blossoms into a glaring public view defending what many perceive as a self-evidently racist philosophy, manipulating the Bible in precisely the same fashion once done by pastors defending slavery and segregation

How in the world did the white Strom Thurmond, the very embodiment of the white racist in 1964, become the integrationist patron of the black Armstrong Williams in 1974 and a key backer of the Republican president who, in the words of New York Times liberal columnist Tom Wicker, "accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the previous sixteen years." While the black man who began his career as a disciple of civil rights hero John F. Kennedy and mixes his religion with the politics of the Democratic Party bursts onto the national scene portrayed -- through his own videotaped words -- as a black racist minister? A minister who is, among his many startling words, captured bitterly mocking a black U.S. Supreme Court Justice and two black Secretaries of State. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the first of those diplomats repeatedly broke racial barriers as the first black national security adviser to a president (Reagan), was a four-star Army General, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State to a second president (George W. Bush.) The second, a black woman from Birmingham, Alabama, whose childhood friend was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in one of the most infamous racial murders in American history, served as a provost at a prestigious university (Stanford), then national security advisor before turning Secretary of State, becoming the first black woman to hold each of these posts. Collectively the three -- Republicans all -- have been dissed by Wright as "Clarence, Colin and Condamnesia," Wright making his disdain for each abundantly plain.

HOW DO POLITICAL CONVERSIONS like this, conversions that rival the religious turn of Saul on the Road to Damascus -- and its reverse -- happen?

In four words: the Culture of Lincoln. And that culture's opposite -- a culture of race. In an earlier column here, the disgracefully racist platforms of the Democratic Party have been dealt with at length. But what about the Republicans? What exactly does the word "culture" mean, anyway? How exactly has a "Culture of Lincoln" expressed itself?

Culture is defined as "traditions" or, perhaps more tellingly in this case, a "way of life." OK. So let's start with the traditions that are the quadrennial Republican Party platforms, documents that have made a regular appearance ever since the GOP's first appearance in a presidential election in 1856.

There have been 38 platforms written by the GOP since the first Republican Party platform in 1856. The "tradition" of the party has been made repeatedly clear. In decided, crystal-clear language the party time and time and time again has made it vividly plain that it was the Republican Party "way of life" to oppose slavery, segregation, to support enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment, passage of anti-lynching laws and anti-poll tax laws. In 1964, when the presidential nominee was Senator Barry Goldwater, the party platform specifically supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a law Goldwater, an integrationist himself, had opposed solely, and with reluctance, because he simply believed it gave too much power to the federal government. Nixon had supported the bill, and was well on record saying so.

In all of this time, it was the GOP, which had set the tone of its party culture from the beginning by labeling slavery a "gigantic evil," that was helping prominent blacks break the racial barriers set up by Democrats. Lincoln befriended Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt socialized with Booker T. Washington in the White House (drawing howls of outrage from Democrats of the day.) In 1966, over the opposition of the Kennedys, Massachusetts Republicans succeeded in electing Edward Brooke as the first black U.S. Senator in the 20th century. And, of course, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice have been appointed by GOP presidents Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43.

SO WHAT IS the problem here? How does Democrat Wright the pastor get himself boxed into a corner where he is not only pilloried as a black racist, something Richard Nixon warned about decades ago, while Thurmond the white racist ends his career 180 degrees from where he began?

While there are may be other factors, surely the insistent demands of Republicans that their party function with "color-blindness" as not simply a goal but a functional governing reality has played a central role. It is curious indeed that the Democratic Party has been home to both white and black racial extremists. Only this one major political party in American history has been home to Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright.

Why is this?

Listen to liberals on the importance of culture. A "Culture of Corruption" is "choking our democracy to death," says no less than Bill Moyers, the far-left Democratic Party champion. Arianna Huffington has written an entire book hailed by Publishers Weekly as an assault on "the corporate culture of greed." As this is written Senator Obama is inveighing against "the culture in Washington."

All right then. Agreed. Culture, "tradition" and "a way of life" is important. Whether one is dealing with corruption, corporate greed, or Washington, the culture in which human beings swim is important. The bitter fact for Democrats -- not to mention the ironic fact given the presentation of the media -- is that if one swims in the "Culture of Lincoln" as a white racist and segregationist leader, one emerges from the experience as an integrationist, appointing and socializing with blacks. Sadly, as many people seem to see with Reverend Wright, the culture of race that has for almost two centuries been at the core of the Party of Race, some people who begin careers with the brightest of hopes and the best of intentions emerge pictured as racists themselves.

Has Reverend Wright been treated unfairly? His supporters insist so. Has he embraced a party with an undeniably racist history to find himself pictured as a racist himself? Indeed so.

Wright's supporters should take a very long look at where this man began -- and where he has ended up.

Not, most assuredly, in the Culture of Lincoln. And it shows.

Go ask Armstrong Williams.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.