Mitt Romney, now a Republican senator from Utah, was 15 years old during his father’s civil rights push. It came amid increasing tensions between blacks and whites as integration efforts spread across the country. A few months earlier, a riot unfolded in Mississippi over James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss. The country was on edge.
But the early 1960s also represented a time when many Republicans embraced civil rights and received support from black voters.
Shortly after his speech on discrimination, George Romney visited the oldest black church in Michigan with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat who would pass the landmark Civil Rights Act a year later.
“While we in America have freed the slave of his chains,” Johnson said that afternoon in Michigan, “we have not freed his heirs of their color.”
The memory of those days resurfaced over the weekend at the protest in Washington over the death of George Floyd in police custody. There, Mitt Romney joined supporters marching through the streets, just as his father had done in the 1960s.
Romney tweeted about it:
In supporting civil rights legislation, George Romney, then one of the most prominent Mormons in the country, was distancing himself from his church.
But he wasn’t exactly distancing himself from his party — at least not then.
The Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, who is remembered for, among other things, freeing the enslaved.
President Theodore Roosevelt, also a Republican, ultimately had a mixed record on race but spoke publicly in support of Lincoln’s efforts and delivered speeches supporting minorities.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II, backed civil rights legislation and the desegregation of the armed forces.
And Republicans also backed Johnson’s landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which seems so surprising in this era’s highly partisan atmosphere that when then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele made that claim on TV in 2010, the Poynter Institute’s fact-checking squad investigated.
The verdict: True.
The Civil Rights Act — which is best known for barring discrimination in public accommodations — passed the House on Feb. 10, 1964 by a margin of 290-130. When broken down by party, 61 percent of Democratic lawmakers voted for the bill (152 yeas and 96 nays), and a full 80 percent of the Republican caucus supported it (138 yeas and 34 nays).When the Senate passed the measure on June 19, 1964, — nine days after supporters mustered enough votes to end the longest filibuster in Senate history — the margin was 73-27. Better than two-thirds of Senate Democrats supported the measure on final passage (46 yeas, 21 nays), but an even stronger 82 percent of Republicans supported it (27 yeas, 6 nays).
But as PolitiFact and historians have pointed out, the lack of Democratic support was in the South, where Southern Democrats vociferously defended segregation. Northern Democrats largely supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Generally speaking,” PolitiFact wrote, “the scholars we talked to agreed that Republicans were important players, usually working cooperatively with Johnson and other leading Democrats.”
But that moment also marked the beginning of a vast change in American politics, with conservative Democrats, furious about the Civil Rights Act and desegregation, abandoning the party and joining up with Republicans. Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was designed to exploit this shift, ultimately playing out in his “law and order” campaign for president in 1968.
Meanwhile, African Americans shifted their allegiance to the Democratic Party, strengthening its progressive values and becoming core to its success.
And so here we are now.
President Trump, the highest-ranking Republican in the land, reacted to Mitt Romney’s march through Washington by denigrating him.
The day before, Trump had tweeted something else that is quickly becoming a refrain: “LAW & ORDER!”
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