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“The Southern Strategy Is Dead”: Does The Republican Party Have An Alternative?

On Monday afternoon, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) announced that she now supports removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the statehouse in Columbia. While the reaction of the Republican presidential candidates to the terrorist attack last week in Charleston and the subsequent debate about the flag has been cowardly at best, this is nevertheless a significant moment, with broad implications for the place of race in American politics. To put it simply, the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” is all but dead.

As political strategies go, it had a good run — nearly half a century. In 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned on behalf of the “silent majority” who wanted nothing of civil rights protests and uppity young people; he told them he’d deliver the “law and order” they craved, and there was little question who they were afraid of. It was called the Southern Strategy because while the South had been firmly Democratic since the Civil War, Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act initiated an exodus of Southern whites to the Republican Party, enabling them to build an electoral college majority with the South as its foundation. They would win five of the next six presidential elections with that strategy.

A key component was to make the GOP the default party of white people, by running against what they associated with black people — not just civil rights, but things like poverty programs and crime. It required ongoing reminders of who was on who’s side. So in 1980, Ronald Reagan announced his campaign for president in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964. He was not there to promote racial healing. Four years earlier, Reagan had told audiences how appalled he was at the idea of a “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps, and he spent a good deal of the 1980 campaign railing against welfare queens. The race of the (largely fictional) offenders was lost on no one.

And as Stanley Greenberg, then a political scientist and now a leading Democratic pollster, found in his classic 1985 study of Macomb County, Michigan, the entire phenomenon of “Reagan Democrats” was built on racial resentment. “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics,” he wrote. “Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.”

So when Reagan’s vice president ran to succeed him, it was little surprise that he would employ an inflammatory racial attack against his opponent, repeating over and over again the story of escaped convict Willie Horton. If Michael Dukakis were elected, George Bush’s campaign convinced people, hordes of menacing black felons would rampage through the land, raping white women and emasculating their husbands. They didn’t say it in quite those words, but they didn’t have to; Horton’s mug shot (aired endlessly on the news) and the story of his crimes was more than enough. While Bush is now treated as a noble and kind elder statesman, we shouldn’t forget that he ran one of the most racist presidential campaigns of modern times. “By the time we’re finished,” Bush’s strategist Lee Atwater said, “they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Today a Republican presidential candidate wouldn’t feature Willie Horton as prominently as Bush did, but it isn’t because they’ve seen the moral error of their ways. It’s because it doesn’t work anymore. While nearly nine in 10 voters in 1980 were white, their proportion has been dropping for decades, and it will probably be around seven in 10 in next year’s election. Mitt Romney won all the Deep South in 2012, and won white voters by more than 20 points — but still lost to Barack Obama by 126 electoral votes.

That doesn’t mean the GOP’s center of gravity doesn’t still lie beneath the Mason-Dixon line. Republicans control nearly all the state governments in the South, which provides them laboratories for their latest innovations in governing, and their hold on the House of Representatives is built on their strength in the South. But as a strategy to win the White House, counting on white people — and the white people who respond when their racial hot buttons are pushed — won’t ever succeed again.

The party’s candidates are still coming to grips with this reality. They’ve pandered to racists for so long that not upsetting them is still their default setting; when the issue of the Confederate flag came up, the first response almost all of presidential candidates had was just to say that the people of South Carolina will decide, which is procedurally accurate and substantively irrelevant. But if South Carolina’s governor can come out against the flag, it really is a signal that times have changed.

Smart people in the GOP know that if the party is going to win the White House again, they can’t do it with the Southern Strategy that served them so well for so long. The question now is whether they can come up with an alternative.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributing Writer, The Week, June 23, 2015

June 24, 2015 Posted by | Confederate Flag, Nikki Haley, Southern Strategy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“John Lewis Tells His Truth About Selma”: Reflections Of A Legacy Of Resistance That Led Many To Struggle And Die For Justice

The role of art in our society is not to reenact history but to offer an interpretation of human experience as seen through the eyes of the artist. The philosopher Aristotle says it best: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.”

The movie “Selma” is a work of art. It conveys the inner significance of the ongoing struggle for human dignity in America, a cornerstone of our identity as a nation. It breaks through our too-often bored and uninformed perception of our history, and it confronts us with the real human drama our nation struggled to face 50 years ago.

And “Selma” does more than bring history to life, it enlightens our understanding of our lives today. It proves the efficacy of nonviolent action and civic engagement, especially when government seems unresponsive. With poignant grace, it demonstrates that Occupy, inconvenient protests and die-ins that disturb our daily routine reflect a legacy of resistance that led many to struggle and die for justice, not centuries ago, but in our lifetimes. It reminds us that the day could be approaching when that price will be required again.

But now this movie is being weighed down with a responsibility it cannot possibly bear. It’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Selma marches has been called into question. And yet one two-hour movie cannot tell all the stories encompassed in three years of history — the true scope of the Selma campaign. It does not portray every element of my story, Bloody Sunday, or even the life of Martin Luther King Jr. We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?

“Lincoln,” for example, was a masterpiece, a fine representation of what it takes to pass a bill. It did not, however, even mention Frederick Douglass or the central role of the abolitionists, who were all pivotal to the passage of the 13th Amendment. For some historians that may be a glaring error, but we accept these omissions as a matter of perspective and the historical editing needed to tell a coherent story. “Selma” must be afforded the same artistic license.

Were any of the Selma marches the brainchild of President Johnson? Absolutely not. If a man is chained to a chair, does anyone need to tell him he should struggle to be free? The truth is the marches occurred mainly due to the extraordinary vision of the ordinary people of Selma, who were determined to win the right to vote, and it is their will that made a way.

As for Johnson’s taped phone conversation about Selma with King, the president knew he was recording himself, so maybe he was tempted to verbally stack the deck about his role in Selma in his favor. The facts, however, do not bear out the assertion that Selma was his idea. I know. I was there. Don’t get me wrong, in my view, Johnson is one of this country’s great presidents, but he did not direct the civil rights movement.

This film is a spark that has ignited interest in an era we must not forget if we are to move forward as a nation. It is already serving as a bridge to a long-overdue conversation on race, inequality and injustice in this country today. It may well become a touchstone, a turning point for another generation of activists who will undertake the next evolutionary push for justice in America.

It would be a tragic error if Hollywood muted its praise for a film because it is too much a story and not enough an academic exercise.

Whenever I have a tough vote in Congress, I ask myself what would leaders of courage do? What would King and Robert Kennedy do? What is the right thing to do? What is the fair and honest thing to do?

The people have already spoken. They are marching to the theaters, arrested by the drama of this film, moved by ideas too long left to languish, driven to their feet and erupting in enthusiastic applause.

 

By: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the leaders of two of the Selma marches, is portrayed in “Selma.” He has been a member of Congress since 1987; Op-Ed Opinion, The Los Angeles Times, january 16, 2015

January 19, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr, Selma | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What Matters In Selma”: Critics Are Completely Missing The Point

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is likely a top contender for the Academy Award for Best Picture. With its focus on the power of activism to force political and moral change, the highly praised film has the right message for our present moment of racial unrest. But not everyone is happy with the way it approaches history, and in particular, how it portrays President Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson “is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be ‘open season’ on the protesters,” writes Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum director Mark K. Updegrove in a column for Politico magazine. “This characterization,” he continues, “flies in the face of history.”

Even harsher is former Johnson staffer Joseph A. Califano Jr., who accuses DuVernay of taking “trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.” “In fact,” writes Califano, “Selma was LBJ’s idea.”

That’s a huge exaggeration. Activists had been organizing in Selma, Alabama, for at least two years before Martin Luther King Jr. met with Johnson, and weeks prior to his meeting with the president, King and his allies had decided on Selma as the site for new action and protests. By the time Johnson suggested something similar to King, the plan was already in motion.

But more than that, that entire line of criticism is misplaced. Selma isn’t a documentary or even a dramatized history. It is a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history. In Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, the investigation to solve the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, is transformed into a story of FBI heroes, one that ignores the role of local activists in bringing the killers to justice and doesn’t touch the bureau’s famous antagonism—under J. Edgar Hoover—toward the civil rights movement.

Just as egregious is the narrative of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which shows a relentless Central Intelligence Agency—personified in Jessica Chastain as Maya—whose methods, including torture, lead to Osama Bin Laden and the military raid that killed him. The factual problem, as detailed in December’s Senate Intelligence Committee report, is that torture didn’t lead to unique intelligence. As such, it’s not clear that it helped find Bin Laden. But Bigelow made a choice to say otherwise, and in the context of the film, it’s defensible. Zero Dark Thirty—to my eyes at least—is less about the particulars of finding Bin Laden and more about the costs of obsession. What happens when you’re willing to give up everything for a single goal? What will you sacrifice? In this reading, torture is the moment when we—through Maya—commit to darkness in pursuit of our ends.

This is all to say that it’s wrong to treat nonfiction films—even biopics—as documentaries. Instead, it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts as creative choices—license in pursuit of art. As viewers, we should be less concerned with fact-checking and more interested in understanding the choices. Why did the director opt for this view and not a different one? If she omits and distorts, why? What is she trying to communicate?

It’s with these questions in mind that we should approach Selma. But first, we should look at how DuVernay actually presents Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) and his relationship with King (played by David Oyelowo).

At worst, DuVernay depicts Johnson and King as wary allies. In the film, Johnson agrees with King on the need for a Voting Rights Act, but he wants him to wait—Johnson has a Great Society to build—and warns that he doesn’t have the votes to push another civil rights bill on the heels of the 1964 Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. It’s not that King and Johnson are enemies—they both want to dismantle Jim Crow—as much as they have different responsibilities and priorities. In order to act, Johnson needs a push. And King gives it to him.

Now, there’s a case that even this is unfair to Johnson. While it’s true he didn’t want to introduce a voting rights bill so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964—he needed votes for his economic program, and he didn’t want to alienate Southern Democrats—it’s also true that, in late 1964, Johnson told Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to write the “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act you can devise.” This draft was written with help from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and was the basis for the bill the leaders introduced in March 1965. The Johnson of Selma, in other words, is much more reluctant than the Johnson of reality.

This is most clear in the scenes with Hoover (played by Dylan Baker), where Johnson allows the FBI director to harass King’s family with evidence of his infidelity. This is a far cry from real life. Yes, Johnson knew the contents of the FBI’s file on King, but there’s no evidence he conspired to smear him. That was a Hoover project, with no connection to Selma or the Voting Rights Act. Johnson may have been frustrated, but he wasn’t stupid, and attacking King would have only radicalized the movement, pushing it closer to its more militant activists. As much as King needed Johnson, Johnson needed King.

Which brings us back to our original question, arguably the only one you should ask of a movie that fictionalizes historical events: Why did the director make these choices? What is DuVernay trying to tell us when she makes Johnson more reluctant than he was, or when she shifts the timeline to give him a role in the FBI’s smear tapes? It’s possible these choices reflect ignorance, but I don’t think that’s right—Selma gets so much right about the period that it’s hard to believe DuVernay just didn’t know. It’s also possible they reflect malice, but again, Johnson isn’t the villain of the film—that distinction goes to Tim Roth’s (delightful) George Wallace, who doesn’t care that he’s on the “wrong side of history.”

If you need a clue, look at the people portrayed in the movie. If you don’t count Martin Sheen, who plays federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson Jr., Johnson and Wallace are the only politicians. Almost everyone else is an activist or an ordinary citizen: Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King, Lorraine Toussaint’s Amelia Boynton, Wendell Pierce’s Hosea Williams, Keith Stanfield’s Jimmie Lee Jackson, Stephan James’ John Lewis, Jeremy Strong’s James Reeb, André Holland’s Andrew Young, and many, many others.

Selma, simply put, is about the men and women who fought to put voting rights on the national agenda, and it engages history from their perspective. By hardening Johnson—and making him a larger roadblock than he was—DuVernay emphasizes the grass roots of the movement and the particular struggles of King and his allies. In the long argument of who matters most—activists or politicians—DuVernay falls on the side of the former, showing how citizens can expand the realm of the possible and give politicians the push—and the room—they need to act.

By those terms, Selma mostly succeeds. But there are flaws. “Except for a few scenes, we see little of the bravery Selma’s citizens displayed,” writes historian Gary May for the Daily Beast. “Annie Lee Cooper, well played by [Oprah] Winfrey, is shown trying but failing to register to vote. We are not told that Cooper had been able to vote without hindrance when she lived in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. But when she returned to Selma in 1962 to care for her aged mother, she lost that right.”

If Selma could have been better, it wasn’t because DuVernay didn’t do justice to Lyndon Johnson, but because there was so much to show about the ordinary people of Selma, and we—as viewers—don’t see it.

 

By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, January 2, 2014

January 5, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr, Selma | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Racism Isn’t Dead”: LBJ’s Civil Rights Act Irrevocably Changed U.S. Landscape

Last week, President Obama and civil rights luminaries went to the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. That legislation, signed in July 1964, was a stunning achievement, a herald of a dramatic transformation in the nation’s social and cultural landscape.

Yet the anniversary comes at a confusing moment in America’s racial journey. While a generation is growing up associating presidential power with a black man, evidence of a pernicious, race-infused backlash is inescapable. And bigotry played a role in the unjust shootings of two young black men, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who were almost certainly victims of racial profiling.

Few suggest, anymore, that the election of President Obama is evidence of a “post-racial” America in which no one notices skin color or takes into account racial and ethnic heritage. In fact, Obama’s rise has fueled the fears and hatred of a small but vocal minority who believe their America — a country run by and for white heterosexual Christians — is disappearing. If you think I’m exaggerating, just read Pat Buchanan’s 2011 screed, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?

It is easy enough to be pessimistic. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who has conducted research on diverse communities, told me he was surprised that Obama’s election had seemed to revive racism rather than quelling it. That revival plays itself out quite vividly in our national politics, where a retrograde faction of the Republican Party dedicates itself to the notion that, if racism still exists, white people are its victims.

Still, it would be foolishly myopic to argue that little has changed in the half-century since President Johnson arm-twisted the Civil Rights Act into history. I’m old enough to remember a landscape that was much more hostile to black Americans, that conspired to limit us in ways too myriad to count. Black and brown millennials don’t know what it means to be refused service in a restaurant, to be shoved to the back to the bus, to be turned away at a hotel because of skin color, to be ushered to a separate (and often filthy) restroom. And their white counterparts would rightly find such policies absurd.

The America that elected Obama is a very different place from the nation over which Johnson presided. Not only do black Americans eat in any restaurant they can afford, but they also star as celebrity chefs on TV. Black men and women preside over corporate boardrooms, head major non-profit institutions and reign as single-name cultural icons.

Yes, there are still major disparities in health and wealth, incarceration rates and even school suspensions. Much work remains before full equality is more than a distant mountain peak. But we ought to be able to discuss the road ahead without pretending that we’ve not made any progress at all. To do that would be to disparage the work of our civil rights heroes and to deny ourselves the inspiration we need to keep plodding along.

Besides, pessimism breeds defeat. It infects its victims with a self-limiting lethargy that fails to take big risks, to reach for the skies, to dream big dreams.

Last month, for example, USA Today profiled high-school senior Kwasi Enin, a first-generation Ghanaian-American who was accepted by all eight Ivy League colleges, an extremely rare accomplishment. Enin has a lot on the ball, but the fact that his parents, as immigrants, likely focused on America’s opportunities — not its race-based limitations — undoubtedly played a role in his remarkable story. That didn’t shield him from any racism prompted by the color of his skin, but it certainly gave him the confidence and the gumption to think he could succeed.

A half-century after Johnson pushed through a law that helped to transform a nation, racism is hardly dead. But it’s a shadow of its former self, a limited force no longer able to define the lives of the nation’s citizens of color. That’s change we can believe in.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Visiting Professor at The University of Georgia; The National Memo, April 12, 2014

April 13, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights Act, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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