Elbert Guillory Gets Right With Lincoln and the Republican Party

It’s always interesting to watch politicians distort the past for their own purposes.  This week Elbert Guillory decided to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. As he explains in this short video, he did so based on his understanding of the broad political history of race. Why he only recently came to some of these realizations goes unmentioned, but here are a few highlights. According to Guillory “the Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an abolitionist movement.” It was the Republican Party that gave blacks rights of citizenship during Reconstruction. Democrats have always been on the wrong side of the history of race. Most importantly, “they were the party of Jim Crow.” Guillory praises Dwight D. Eisenhower as the champion of the Civil Rights act of 1957.” Somehow he forgot that it was a Democrat from Texas who pushed for the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.

Ultimately, Guillory’s break with the Democrats is based on a rejection of the notion that only big government can improve the lives of Americans.  But isn’t much of the history of freedom for African Americans the result of government intervention? Setting aside the important role that blacks played in securing their own freedom didn’t the government intervene directly during the Civil War to free slaves? Finally, wasn’t Reconstruction itself the most extreme example of government intervention during the postwar period before the 1930s? Wasn’t it Southern Democrats who wanted to be left to sort out their affairs without federal intrusion.

Is the legacy of the Republican Party during Reconstruction really one of limited government? Perhaps I need to go back and reread my history. I am so confused.

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37 comments… add one
  • Brendan Bossard Jun 20, 2013 @ 16:25

    I wanted to post a response two days ago but could not. Forgive the delay.

    The question is not whether “big” government is better than “limited” government. Those terms are too abstract, and have become useless cliches that do not promote constructive dialogue in my opinion.

    The question that needs to be asked is whether the government in question is “intervening” or “interfering.”

    Broadly stated, good government intervenes; bad government interferes. Government does not have to be big in order to intervene at appropriate times. It is appropriate for government to intervene in order to protect those who reside under its authority, improve their living conditions, or correct injustice. That is exactly what happened during and after the Civil War. Sometimes government is the only entity that can intervene effectively.

    Government becomes bad when it interferes with its residents’ ability to prosper. There are many ways that people prosper: economically, socially, spiritually, etc.

    It is an open question at what point government moves from intervening to interfering. The answer is not monolithic, either. Government does better in some areas than in others. That is the crux of all legislative debate. One legislator’s program is another’s pork.

    But parties are not monolithic, either. And we must be careful not to blind ourselves to our respective parties’ faults. As a Republican, I believe that our biggest fault is that we do not listen to the concerns of not only black people, but minorities in general. We lecture them on what is good for them, and call them foolish for voting Democrat, but we do not listen to them. Why should they vote Republican, when they have reason to expect every Republican that they meet will just lecture at them about how silly their concerns are?

  • Woodrowfan Jun 20, 2013 @ 5:27

    Huh, he was also a life-long Republican until he switched to the Democrats in 2007 when he ran for state representative in a heavily Democratic district. Now he switches back.

    • Andy Hall Jun 20, 2013 @ 6:56

      I thought we only had opportunistic pols like that in Texas.

      • M.D. Blough Jun 20, 2013 @ 17:33

        Andy, as Winston Churchill stated in the 1920s, after he returned to the Conservative Party after leaving it for the Liberal Party, “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”

  • AD Powell Jun 20, 2013 @ 4:27

    Wasn’t the slave system itself “government intervention”? What do you call the Fugitive Slave Acts? Wasn’t the Jim Crow system a nearly totalitarian type of government that ruled nearly every aspect of citizens’ private lives?

    This is not an endorsement of Elbert Guillory, but the USA would be a VERY different country if the state and federal governments had NEVER made any laws at all regarding “race” or dictating “racial” classifications.

  • Al Mackey Jun 19, 2013 @ 17:22

    “Somehow he forgot that it was a Democrat from Texas who pushed for the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.”

    And it was a Republican from Illinois who delivered the votes to end a filibuster by southern Democrats. What everyone is saying about Nixon and the southern strategy is absolutely true, and the Republican Party is living with the fallout from that now. His move makes the Republican Party just a little more diverse, and that’s a great thing. If more African-Americans follow him it will do a great deal to bring the Republicans back to the mainstream in racial relations. In my opinion, whether one is a Republican, Democrat, or Independent (like me), this should be seen as a positive move. As to his reasons and his history, I find his historical understanding to be about the same as any other politician’s.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2013 @ 17:26

      I tend to agree with you. I don’t care much at all as to whether Guillory is a Democrat or a Republican. He should join the party or no party based on his principles/agenda.

      As to his reasons and his history, I find his historical understanding to be about the same as any other politician’s.

      I think we can find Republicans and Democrats who can do a better job of interpreting the past even when they are engaged in politics.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2013 @ 12:43

    You can’t make this stuff up. Apparently, I completely missed the boat on the significance of Guillory’s shift to the Republican Party. http://www.oldvirginiablog.blogspot.com/2013/06/leaving-government-plantation.html

    I honestly have no problem with it at all. In fact, one of the things I find troubling is the extent to which we assume how different groups ought to vote. I just don’t think you have to butcher the history to do it. 🙂

  • Woodrowfan Jun 19, 2013 @ 11:01

    so apparently the party’s positions on race circa 1860-1890 are more relevant to this gentleman than their positions on race from 1968-today?

    Next up, someone claims they’ve become a Republican today because they are appalled at WJ Bryan’s 16-1 silver campaign.

  • Bummer Jun 19, 2013 @ 6:59

    The “old guy” visits every morning, to learn from informed historians facts and insights regarding the Civil War. An African-American switching parties and his reasons, is hardly a dynamic Civil War issue. Current political debate and the nightmare of the respective parties, all swings with the pendelum of time. What is fact today, very well may be different tomorrow.


    • James Harrigan Jun 19, 2013 @ 7:29

      What is fact today, very well may be different tomorrow.
      Not so, Bummer. What people believe to be facts may change, but facts themselves are stubborn things.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2013 @ 9:10

      Kevin wants the “old guy” to remember that at Civil War Memory we learn from a wide range of people about how historical memory evolves. 🙂

  • Lyle Smith Jun 19, 2013 @ 5:50

    Lyndon Baines Johnson is on record as having called blacks Niggers. Maybe that’s why Louisiana State Senator Elbert Guillory didn’t bring him up.

    History, it is some kind of complicated.

    • Pat Young Jun 19, 2013 @ 6:52

      From the NY Times discussion of a 1991 Robert Dalleck bio:
      “His racial attitudes were mixed up beyond any possibility of our untangling them cleanly now: Mr. Dallek quotes him defending the Supreme Court appointment of the very well-known Thurgood Marshall, rather than a black judge less identified with the civil rights cause, by saying to a staff member, “Son, when I appoint a nigger to the court, I want everyone to know he’s a nigger.” ”

      • Lyle Smith Jun 19, 2013 @ 7:56

        Yep, that’s a pretty good quote.

    • M.D. Blough Jun 19, 2013 @ 10:28

      LBJ was no saint, but he put his formidable skills behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I don’t believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have passed without him. The vote on cloture was so narrow that Sen. Clair Engle (D-CA) who was dying of a brain tumor had to be brought to the Capitol and onto the Senate floor by a nurse pushing his wheelchair. As the official US Senate history records, “The clerk proceeded to call the roll. When he reached “Mr. Engle,” there was no response. A brain tumor had robbed California’s mortally ill Clair Engle of his ability to speak. Slowly lifting a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby signaling his affirmative vote. Few of those who witnessed this heroic gesture ever forgot it. ” Cloture passed by only 4 votes. You should listen to President Johnson’s Speech to Congress on Voting Rights 3/15/1965, right after Selma http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3386 (The transcript and the video).

      • Lee Jun 21, 2013 @ 8:45

        “LBJ was no saint…”

        True, but no one who is a “saint” could be very effective in politics anyway.

  • Pat Young Jun 19, 2013 @ 5:20

    James, many people are also unfamiliar with the real struggle within the Democratic Party to wrest control of many congressional committee chairmanships and national party posts away from the segregationists that was waged by many urban Northerners from “immigrant stock.” You can see this beginning in the 1920s and culminating in the 1960s.

    • James Harrigan Jun 19, 2013 @ 6:00

      Pat, count me among those many people unfamiliar with intra-Democratic Party struggles during the 20th century. I’m much stronger on 19th century US history than 20th…

    • M.D. Blough Jun 19, 2013 @ 6:15

      Pat-Definitely, in addition, white Southerners certainly recognized what was happening in the Democratic Party as early as 1948 with the formation of the Dixiecrat Party.

  • James Harrigan Jun 19, 2013 @ 4:54

    minor point, Kevin: there is no such thing as the “Democrat Party”. The correct usage is “Democratic Party”. Of course, both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are republican and democratic parties, but that’s another issue…

    It is of course true that the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacism (from it’s founding until roughly 1960), and that the Republican Party was the party that won the war, destroyed slavery, and defended the interests of freedmen (until the end of Reconstruction in 1877). But I am always puzzled by people who make the claim that this history is somehow informative about the contemporary positions of the parties with respect to the interests of black people. This argument is far too idiotic for anyone to believe, including the people who make it, so what’s the point? It’s kind of like saying “Virginia used to have slavery, therefore it still does.”

  • Brad Jun 19, 2013 @ 4:35

    The Republican Party had ceased to be a progressive party in the late 1800s, Teddy Roosevelt being a blip in their conservative creep. A major realignment took place in 1932 whend FDR was elected and African American finally deserted the party and become Democrats. There has been nothing since that time to really change that. The Democrats of the 1850s are today’s Republicans.

    • Pat Young Jun 19, 2013 @ 5:17

      Brad, while “Liberals” began migrating in small numbers from the Republican Party as early as 1872, there was still a vibrant progressive wing of the party into the 1920s. Many blacks in the South still voted Republican up through the 1950s.

      • Brad Jun 19, 2013 @ 8:59


        Maybe we need to distinguish between Northern African Americans and the ones in the South. Obviously, the African Americans who voted (those who could vote, that is) in the South would not vote Democratic. However, in the North, because African Americans were, for the most, concentrated in urban centers, the big change or the beginning of the change came in 1932 when the voters began to desert the Republican Party. After all, what had Coolidge and Hoover done for them. Not much.

        As an aside, why anyone would start to think highly of Coolidge (as Amity Shaeles has done) is beyond me.

  • Pat Young Jun 19, 2013 @ 3:09

    My dad was a Republican who brought me up to think of his party as the Party of Lincoln. In 1968 Nixon worked effectively to bring the segregationist elements that had left the Democratic Party beginning in the 1940s into the GOP. In his last days, Dad got to hear Southern Republicans disparage the first president from their party.

    Also, Guillory attributes the “Free at last” quote to a “Republican leader.” Most folks think of the quote as coming from MLK, and he attributed it to a “Negro spiritual.” Was it in fact said by, oh, William Howard Taft first?

    • Andy Hall Jun 19, 2013 @ 4:08

      It’s a fairly common talking point on the right to claim that that MLK was a Republican. King has faded sufficiently into the mists (and myths) of history that most Americans don’t recall much about his positions on specific issues of public policy, and how the Civil Eights Act and Nixon’s Southern Strategy completely upended the parties’ positions on race. I doubt many Americans under the age of 50, for example, can tell you why King was in Memphis in April 1968 in the first place.

      • M.D. Blough Jun 19, 2013 @ 4:43

        Andy-I’m assuming that MLK started out life as a Republican, if he was registered as anything (or, if he even could be registered. That was not a given in the Jim Crow South). Up until the Southern Strategy, the Republican Party record on Civil Rights in the 20th Century remained good enough that it retained the aura of the party of Lincoln. Most of the judges of the great 5th Circuit panels that upheld Civil Rights. However, the turning point was when the Democrats came to the fork in the road and chose civil rights. I just finished reading a book on the desegregation of Old Miss and Kennedy’s great address on civil rights. Then Lyndon Johnson chose putting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, started by Kennedy, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 over the votes of white Southerners and the Republicans made the choice to abandon their heritage (which included, as late as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 providing crucial votes in passing the cloture vote to end the filibuster against it).

        In any event, the current Republican Party is hardly the party of small government. It’s just shifted the focus of big government from civil rights and the general welfare to controlling women.

        • Andy Hall Jun 19, 2013 @ 5:45

          Margaret, I understand the history, and the Republican party’s long record on Civil Rights, right up until Barry Goldwater in 1964. It’s just sorts of nausea-inducing for the GOP of the early 21st century to wrap itself in the mantle of King, and imagine that he has a great deal in common with the likes of Allan West or Herman Cain.

          I’m of an age that I don’t have clear, firsthand memories of either the Civil Rights Movement or MLK. Elbert Guillory, by contrast, turned 21 the year the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law. I wonder what his excuse is.

          • Lyle Smith Jun 19, 2013 @ 7:56

            What excuse does he need Andy? He’s a free man.

          • M.D. Blough Jun 19, 2013 @ 10:37

            Andy-I was 13 when Goodman, Chaney, and Chaney were murdered. I remember bombings, not only of Black churches but of private homes including MLK and the home of Federal Judge Frank Johnson’s mother. De Jure segregation went down fighting and fighting hard.

            • Andy Hall Jun 19, 2013 @ 13:05

              My point was that I can see how people could easily misunderstand something in the distant past — just not something they actually lived through.

              • Lyle Smith Jun 19, 2013 @ 19:43

                Where does he suggest he misunderstands something that he has actually lived through?

      • Pat Young Jun 19, 2013 @ 5:13

        King’s father was a devout Republican, but it would seem odd to call MLK Jr. a “Republican leader.”

        Locally on Long Island I am an “immigrant rights leader” and I am a registered Democrat but no one would refer to me as a “Democratic leader.”

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 20, 2013 @ 9:30

        Andy- i’m under 50 and I can tell you why MLK was in Memphis in 1968: to join sanitation workers in a garbage strike.

        That, and to get a plate of ribs.

        Think about it. Would you go to Tennessee and not get a platter of slow-cooked, mouth watering Memphis BBQ ribs?

        • Andy Hall Jun 20, 2013 @ 10:23

          I suspect your knowledge of King, and U.S. history generally, is somewhat more comprehensive than the national mean for people your (and my) age. I would ask, though, when was the last time a prominent Republican endorsed — let alone traveled to another state to give support to — a strike by unionized public employees? Pols like Guillory are very quick to quote the uplifting “content of their character” rhetoric from the end of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but conveniently forget King’s (substantially longer) discussion of what he saw as the failed promise of America, a defaulted promissory note, in that very same address. They want to claim King as a sacred figure, above the rough-and-tumble of contemporary politics, when he was actually very vocal, even activist, on myriad issues of public policy. His positions were not those that conservatives with supportive of then, and they’re not positions conservatives are supportive of now, even though the positions of the parties have essentially reversed themselves in the fifty years since then.

          Now, I shall refrain from any contentious disputation on the subject of BBQ in deference to our gracious host. I have no doubt that Memphis BBQ ribs are among the best anywhere, and will even concede that there exists a theoretical possibility that there might be better BBQ than that served at Leon’s World’s Finest in-and-Out Barbecue. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

          • Robert Hubbard Jul 17, 2013 @ 5:59

            Andy- Nothing is absolute. MLK’s desire to see self actuation by the black community was a very notable theme in his speeches. He didn’t talk about the government being the way to prosperity, that the black community were at a disadvantage and that employees must organize (Union) in order to get a “fair shot”. MLK didn’t say those things because he believed the answer was within the black community it’s self, to rise up and to take responsibility for itself. The GOP is still the same today, there is more of a frustration by the right watching the blacks get brainwashed into thinking they can’t do anything for themselves except through the helping hands of BIG Government. Big Government is the lie that has been sold to the blacks for decades now and it’s the root of our issues. As the younger generations come up, they are less divided by race and more divided by their socioeconomic status….. The Democratic party policies were and still are among the most divisive to this day. Sounds like you’re pro-Union (probably were Union) and that you also believe that entrepreneurs and businesses in general are “using” their labor force and taking all the profits, etc. blah blah blah….. The smartest folks in the black community are starting to figure out that the Democrats have held them down by promising free handouts and convincing them they can’t do anything without big government making it possible. Lies lies lies…

            • Kevin Levin Jul 17, 2013 @ 6:04

              The GOP is still the same today, there is more of a frustration by the right watching the blacks get brainwashed into thinking they can’t do anything for themselves except through the helping hands of BIG Government. Big Government is the lie that has been sold to the blacks for decades now and it’s the root of our issues.

              Always interesting to read comments that generalize about others. While it may reinforce your own political preferences it unfortunately comes at the cost of claiming that African Americans who disagree with you can’t think for themselves. How convenient.

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