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Republicans and Race

The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945–1974

Timothy N. Thurber

September 2013
496 pages, 18 photographs, 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1938-2, $39.95

Book cover imageSkeptics might rationalize that Mitt Romney received a scant 6 percent of the black vote in 2012 only because African Americans would naturally favor one of their own. But since 1964, no Republican presidential candidate has attracted more than 15 percent of the black electorate, and few GOP candidates for other offices have fared much better. No segment of the American electorate is more reliably Democratic than African Americans. The GOP, meanwhile, remains nearly an all-white party.

In this path-breaking book, historian Timothy Thurber illuminates the deep roots of this gulf by exploring the contentious, and sometimes surprising, relationship between African Americans and the Republican Party from the end of World War II through Richard Nixon’s presidency. The GOP, he shows, shaped the modern civil rights movement, but the struggle for racial equality also transformed the GOP.

Thurber challenges conventional wisdom that the “party of Lincoln” disappeared in the mid-1960s. Prior to 1964, the GOP was indifferent or hostile to many of the demands from civil rights activists. During the height of the civil rights revolution, Republicans were essential to enacting federal policies that made American society more egalitarian. The GOP helped defend, and sometimes expanded, those reforms in the early 1970s. Conservatives were not as dominant after 1964 as scholars and pundits often portray.

Yet throughout these three decades the rift between African Americans and the GOP remained substantial. They disagreed, often sharply, over the role of the federal government, particularly regarding economic matters and the integration of schools and neighborhoods. They had different views about race and American society. They also clashed in the political arena, where Republicans wrote off the black vote as unwinnable, irrelevant, or counterproductive to their drive to supplant the Democrats as the nation’s majority party. The GOP preferred to court whites nationwide, sometimes by appealing to their racial animosities.

That strategy often yielded electoral success, but the legacy of the past looms large in the early twenty-first century. With its depth of research and insight, Republicans and Race will stand as a definitive study as the GOP ponders the composition of its base in future elections.

“A monumental work. For decades to come, this will be the definitive study of the Republican Party and race in the years following World War II. It is exhaustively researched, meticulously written, and slays a bucketful of myths on the subject.”—David Nichols, author of A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution

“A fresh examination, full of new insights and great nuance. Readers will learn that many of the stereotypes about the Republican Party and race just are not accurate.”—Donald T. Critchlow, author of The Conservative Ascendancy

“Rich in detail, incident, and insight, Thurber’s splendid work explains the misperceptions and missed opportunities that led to the widening gulf between the Party of Lincoln and the nation’s minorities.  A judicious and essential history, full of contemporary resonance.”—Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party

“The most deeply researched and nuanced history to date of how the GOP’s national leadership dealt with, or failed to deal with, the African American freedom struggle in the three decades following World War II. Thurber moves far beyond the impressionistic histories of the Republican southern strategy to show how liberal, moderate, and conservative Republicans were arguing over what was to become of Lincoln’s legacy. Essential reading for anyone trying to understand the history behind the common perception today of the GOP as a superannuated party of white folks.”—Joseph Crespino, author of Strom Thurmond’s America

TIMOTHY N. THURBER is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of The Politics of Equality: Hubert H. Humphrey and the African American Freedom Struggle.

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