There is an awful lot of misinformation and untruth out there about the legacy of the two major political parties and the civil rights movement. Conservatives often like to use slight of hand, insisting that because the early Republican party was stronger in support of civil rights, this means that conservatives have the moral high ground. This is totally untrue.
Republicans – Moderate and Liberal Republicans supported civil rights. The Republicans who supported civil rights in America were not conservatives of the same ilk as George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. They were liberals and moderates, people like former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chaffee and former senator governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Conservative Democrats opposed civil rights. The Democrats opposed to the civil rights movement weren’t Democrats with the center-left ideology of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They were, in fact, conservatives – especially from the south – with far more in common with Limbaugh, Beck, etc. than any modern mainstream Democrat. When people say that someone like notorious segregationist Bull Connor was a Democrat, they are technically right on the party label, but when it comes to ideology Connor and the rest of those opposed to racial integration were conservatives.
Conservatives opposed civil rights. At the time of the civil rights movement, outside of the parties, conservatives were opposed to the civil rights movement. Barry Goldwater, a conservative whose brand of politics would soon take over the Republicans in the guise of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, opposed civil rights law. He claimed that he viewed it as a states rights issue, and actually favored equal rights, but the practical effect of his stance would be to allow segregation – in the south “states rights” meant “Jim Crow.” The conservative intellectual movement – William F. Buckley’s National Review, for instance, opposed what they viewed as law-breaking protests by Dr. Martin Luther King.
Democrats moved left on civil rights, in favor. Over time the Democrats moved to the left on civil rights, meaning they moved with other liberals in favor of them. Southern, conservative
Democrats opposed civil rights and the laws were passed by liberal/moderate Republicans and liberal/moderate Democrats. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat.
Conservative Democrats left the party in opposition to civil rights and became Republicans. After the Civil Rights law was signed into law, conservative Democrats left the party. Strom Thurmond, who ran as a segregationist in 1948, became a Republican, as did Jesse Helms (who went on to filibuster against making Martin Luther King Jr. day a federal holiday).
Republicans used racial resentment for elections, while Democrats became more racially inclusive. As the Republican party became more ideologically conservative in the post-Goldwater era, they increasingly used racially divisive politics for electoral gain. The GOP employed what is now known as “the southern stategy” (acknowledged by GOP party chairmen Ken Mehlman and Michael Steele in the last decade) to demonize blacks and other minorities while also riling up the white, male conservative base that forms the party now. Examples include the Willie Horton ad used by Bush Sr. allies vs Michael Dukakis, the “hands” ad used by Jesse Helms, and the nonstop racebaiting versus President Obama from conservative outlets like Fox News and talk radio.
At the same time, the Democratic party became more and more racially inclusive. After civil rights passed, and the GOP became more conservative and increased racial demagoguery, black and other minority voters became Democrats. Every black member of the House of Representatives is a Democrat, and every black senator since 1979 has been a Democrat. The first black president, is of course, Barack Obama – a Democrat.
The parties have changed but the ideology hasn’t. The attempt to co-opt liberal support of civil rights has been a consistent campaign of the right, despite their predecessor’s opposition to the concept. The attempt to say that liberal Republicans of the past are the same as conservative Republicans of today, is just a terrible lie. Conservatives often try to say people like Martin Luther King Jr. would be conservatives. This is entirely untrue. In the last years of his life, Dr. King ran what he called “The Poor People’s Campaign,” and his beliefs would largely be to the left of where the modern Democratic party is, let alone the Republicans.
The Democrats moved away from the conservative position against racial inclusion, while the right moved the other way and has only recently somewhat acknowledged the moral folly of its past. Conservatives opposed civil rights, while liberals favored them. Both ideologies have inhabited majorities in both parties, but the ideological support or opposition to civil rights and equality has largely remained the same.