Americans of African descent voted overwhelmingly Republican from the end of the Civil War to the 1930s but became almost totally Democrat by the 1970s. No single event brought about this tectonic shift, but the change in black voting patterns began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During the depression, Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) gave starving men work, food, and shelter. My father, a black American, lived and worked in a CCC camp for six months, and he was forever grateful.
As a result, he became a passionate Democrat and disdained the Republican Party as the exclusive club of the heartless rich. When Truman became president, he ended racial segregation in the military, furthering the image of Democrats as the party of compassion and justice.
Then came John Kennedy, the inspiring symbol of the future. His famous call to Coretta Scott King while her husband was held in a Georgia jail created an emotional bond with black voters. Most historians agree that President Kennedy was reticent at best, fearing that he would alienate southern Democrats. Nevertheless, he made the call and reinforced the idea that Democrats cared and Republicans did not. That single gesture caused Martin Luther King, Sr. ("Daddy King") to switch his support from Nixon to Kennedy, and many black voters did the same.
After the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson – the former segregationist who was known to use the N-word in private – became the public champion of civil rights. The last Republican to receive a significant percentage of the black vote was Richard Nixon with 32 percent. It was the dying gasp of a century-long love affair between black voters and the GOP. They have now been estranged for half a century.
How did Republicans allow a constituency once firmly in their camp to make a wholesale exodus? Or to put it another way, how did Democrats wrench the black vote from the GOP’s gasp?