The Grand Old Party, the party responsible for the vast majority of civil rights legislation, began in a little schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854. A small assembly of abolitionists came together to bring an end to the institution of slavery. This tiny group of individuals eventually gave way to a political party dedicated to freedom, equal opportunity and civil rights. The name “Republican” alludes to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party and the commitment to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Formal organization of the GOP took place in July, 1854 at a convention in Jackson, Michigan. Thousands of anti-slavery activists were present and two years later, in 1856, the first Republican National Convention took place in Philadelphia, at which the party’s Constitution was written.
Less than a decade later, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which followed, in 1864, by the Republican National Convention’s call for the abolition of slavery. In 1865, Congressional Republicans passed the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery–unanimously, with only a few Democrat votes.
The 13 Amendment conferred U.S. citizenship on all black Americans and afforded them “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.”
The 14 Amendment, passed on June 13, 1866, also garnered unanimous support from Republicans and vehement opposition from Democrats. Section 1 of the amendment states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Following the Civil War, much of the work towards civil rights for blacks was initiated by the wing of the Republican party known as the Radical Republicans. They were referred to as “radical” because of their strong stance on these and other issues. The right that provoked the greatest controversy concerned black male suffrage.
In 1867, Congress passed a law requiring the former Confederate states to include black male suffrage in their new state constitutions. Ironically, even though black men began voting in the South after 1867, the majority of Northern states continued to deny them this basic right. Finally, at the end of February 1869, Congress approved a compromise amendment that didn’t specifically mention black men:
Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Once approved by the required two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, the 15th Amendment had to be ratified by 28, or three-fourths, of the states. Due to reconstruction laws, black male suffrage already existed in 11 Southern states. While Congress debated the 15th Amendment early in 1869, 150 black men from 17 states assembled for a convention in Washington, D.C. This was the first national meeting of black Americans in the history of the United States. Frederick Douglass was elected president of the convention.
Despite Democratic opposition, the Republican party secured ratification victories throughout 1869. Ironically, it was a Southern state, Georgia that clinched the ratification of the 15th Amendment on February 2, 1870.
On March 30, President Grant officially proclaimed the 15th Amendment as part of the Constitution. Washington and many other American cities celebrated. More than 10,000 blacks paraded through Baltimore. In a speech on May 5, 1870, Frederick Douglass rejoiced. “What a country — fortunate in its institutions, in its 15th Amendment, in its future.”
But, the elation over this victory was short-lived. While Republicans amassed loyal black voters in the North, the South was a different story altogether. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leashed a reign of terror against black men who tried to vote or who had voted, by burning homes, churches and schools, and in some cases by resorting to murder.
The KKK was founded in Tennessee, in 1866, as a social club. It then spread into just about every state in the South and eventually into the North in various locations. According to Dr. Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University: “In effect, the Klan was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired the restoration of white supremacy. It aimed to destroy the Republican party’s infrastructure, undermine the Reconstruction state, reestablish control of the black labor force, and restore racial subordination in every aspect of Southern life.”
Indeed, from 1870 to 1930 Democrats used fraud, lynching, whippings, mutilation, murder and intimidation in order to suppress the black population. In addition to that, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial discrimination and denied blacks equal rights, were enforced. Gun control measures were also taken in order to disarm the black population.
It was during this period of time, in 1875, that landmark legislation was introduced—The Civil Rights Act of 1875. Introduced by Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, it “guaranteed all citizens, regardless of color, access to accommodations, theatres, public schools, churches, and cemeteries. The bill further forbid the barring of any person from jury service on account of race, and provided that all lawsuits brought under the new law would be tried in federal, not state, courts.” Unfortunately, Sumner died before the passage of his bill. The senator died of a heart attack in 1874 and as he lay dying, he said: “Don’t let the bill fail.” He exhorted Frederick Douglass and the others at his bedside to take care of his civil rights bill.
In the years following the turn of the century, the women’s rights movement began to gain some steam and was solidly Republican. Most suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, favored the GOP. The 19th Amendment was written by a Republican senator and received greater support from Republicans than from Democrats. It was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and ratified on August 18, 1920. It guarantees American women the right to vote.
Prior to the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment, in 1917 the first woman was elected to Congress. Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) was sworn in on June 4, 1919.
Not long after that, on June 2, 1924, the Republican-controlled 68th Congress and President Calvin Coolidge granted citizenship to Native Americans with the Indian Citizenship Act. Then, in 1928 Sen. Octaviano Larrazolo (R-NM) was sworn in as the first Hispanic U.S. Senator.
Later on down the line, on May 17, 1954, the legendary Brown v Board of Education ruling struck down racial segregation in public schools. The majority decision was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren who was a former Republican governor of California and also a vice presidential nominee.
In 1957, President Eisenhower, who appointed Justice Warren, sent Congress a proposal for civil rights legislation. The end result was the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and enabled federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote. It also established the Civil Rights Commission which was given the authority to investigate discriminatory conditions and recommend corrective measures. In the end, however, the final act was weakened by Congress due to lack of support from Democrats. President Eisenhower was also responsible for sending U.S. troops to Arkansas to desegregate schools.
The Republican party also produced the first Asian-American U.S. Senator, Hiram Fong (R-HI), who won his seat on August 21, 1959.
On June 10, 1964 the Senate passed key civil rights legislation–The 1964 Civil Rights Act in which the Republican leader, Everett Dirksen (R-IL), defeated a Democrat filibuster. The Civil Rights Act of 1964:
“…is the nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation, and it continues to resonate in America. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Passage of the Act ended the application of ‘Jim Crow’ laws, which had been upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Court held that racial segregation purported to be ‘separate but equal’ was constitutional. The Civil Rights Act was eventually expanded by Congress to strengthen enforcement of these fundamental civil rights.”
According to the Michael Zak, in his book, Back to Basics for the Republican Party:
“On this day in 1964, Everett Dirksen (R-IL), the Republican Leader in the U.S. Senate, condemned the Democrats’ 57-day filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Leading the Democrats in their opposition to civil rights for African-Americans was Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV). Byrd, who got into politics as a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, spoke against the bill for fourteen straight hours. Democrats still call Robert Byrd ‘the conscience of the Senate.’”
In addition to that, the House version of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supported by only 61 percent of that Chamber’s Democrats while 80 percent of Republicans embraced the act. In the final Senate vote on the Act, it received 82 percent of the Republican vote and was opposed by 69 percent of Democrats.
Similarly, 94 percent of Senate Republicans voted in favor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 versus 73 percent of Democrats. The final vote on the House’s version was even more stark as only one Senate Republican voted against it while seventeen Democrats opposed it. In the House, 82 percent of Republicans supported the bill versus 78 percent of Democrats.
In the decades following the civil rights era, the GOP continued its pioneering dedication to freedom and liberty for all U.S. citizens. For instance, on September 25, 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the Supreme Court.
Republicans sought to create an environment in which anyone who persevered could achieve the American dream. GOP-driven welfare reform, for example, is responsible for helping scores of people move forward towards self-sufficiency. Moreover, charter schools have been significantly effective in rescuing poor urban children from failing public schools and providing them with the tools to succeed in life.
Consistently embracing a law and order platform, the GOP has always fought gun control measures which disarm the law-abiding citizens. In many high crime areas minorities are victimized and often unable to defend themselves because of strict gun laws which have little impact on criminals. The GOP supports measures which reduce the amount of gun violence by empowering the law-abiding citizen.
The Republican party has historically also fought illegal immigration and one reason for that is because illegal workers steal jobs from black and Hispanic laborers who are in this country legally.
As we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday, we should be mindful also of the Republican party’s persistent dedication to freedom, liberty and justice for all. Let freedom ring.