In a speech before the National Rifle Association on Friday, President Trump thanked rapper Kanye West for boosting his popularity among African Americans to 22 percent. Trump’s assertion was factually dubious — the Reuters poll showed that his approval rating among African American men had increased, and even then the sample size wasn’t statistically significant. Trump also took the opportunity to repeat his campaign claim that “Democrats have always had [African Americans’] votes” and that black Americans have little to lose by switching sides.
The bromance between Trump and West is less than two weeks old, sparked by West’s praise for Trump as well as their shared love of ahistorical Republican truisms. But while historians have been quick to debunk claims that the GOP is, and has always been, the party of black civil rights, they have missed another of the duo’s historical inaccuracies: that African Americans are reflexively loyal to the Democratic Party.
In reality, during the 20th century, African Americans were anything but blindly loyal partisans. They have indeed migrated from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, but they did so gradually and unevenly, based on clear-eyed calculations of which candidate represented the best hope of advancing equality in American society. They didn’t become Democrats out of misbegotten loyalty. Instead, Republicans left them little choice, moving sharply to undermine the gains of the civil rights movement.
Until the Republican Party ceases its rhetorical and legislative assaults on the poor and people of color and asserts itself as the party of civil rights once again, black voters will continue to rebuke the party of Lincoln.
The story of the African American switch to the Democratic Party often begins with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection, in which he captured 71 percent of the black vote. Although his civil rights policies left much to be desired, his New Deal programs addressed the immediate economic concerns of African Americans struggling during the Great Depression.
But despite Roosevelt’s dominant performance among black voters, black voters remained ideologically diverse. Black Republicanism was active and vibrant, particularly in Southern cities where Democrats remained staunchly segregationist and in northern cities where ethnic Democratic urban machines excluded the growing populations of new black migrants.
In Atlanta, for example, many of the city’s most prominent African American civic leaders — including Martin Luther King Sr. and newspaper editor C.A. Scott — switched to the Republican Party in the 1930s and 1940s, just as many other blacks in the city were registering as Democrats to express support for Roosevelt. Black partisan identity, in other words, remained largely fluid.
Demonstrating this fluidity, Democrat Adlai Stevenson received 74 percent of Atlanta’s black vote in his 1952 race against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. But just four years later, 86 percent of black Atlantans favored Eisenhower in his rematch against Stevenson. On the local level, black Atlantans strategically supported the candidate with the strongest civil rights platform or, more often, whichever candidate made any appeal to black voters whatsoever — regardless of party. That meant that while Atlanta’s black Republicans sought to expand Georgia’s GOP to counter segregationist Democrats on the state level, they also supported progressive local Democrats such as four-term mayor William B. Hartsfield. As both parties struggled throughout the 1940s and 1950s on the issue of African American civil rights, black voters nationwide routinely switched between them.
By the 1960s, however, the Democratic Party began to emerge as the party of civil rights, particularly on the national level. While Richard Nixon received a sizable percentage of the black vote in 1960, the 1964 Goldwater campaign soured black Americans on the GOP. Goldwater, who had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, received just 6 percent of the black vote — an all-time low for Republican candidates both before and since. Goldwater’s opposition overshadowed his party’s support for the bill in Congress, where more than 80 percent of the Senate’s 27 Republicans voted in favor. Yet Goldwater’s candidacy signaled an increasing rightward shift within the GOP that intensified as segregationist Democrats joined the party.
Meanwhile, thousands of African Americans registered as Democrats, not only because of the landmark civil rights legislation pushed by President Lyndon B. Johnson but also because of his War on Poverty.
Yet despite the appearance that the mid-1960s marked a fundamental turning point after which black voters were unfailingly Democrats, their loyalties remained flexible. Thousands of black voters continued to support moderate and progressive Republicans such as New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Michigan Gov. George Romney and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (Ill.), whose commitment to nondiscrimination appealed to many black voters. Even Nixon, who accumulated a mixed record on civil rights, slightly increased his percentage of black support from 15 percent in 1968 to about 18 percent in 1972 in part by touting his support for black capitalism and affirmative action during his presidency.
Nixon’s gains illustrated how in the 1970s, although largely supportive of the Democratic candidates on a national level, black voters were not wed to either party. Rather, they remained politically savvy voters who continued to make demands upon both parties for racial and economic justice.
By the Reagan years, however, conservatives began to dominate the Republican Party. They set out to roll back the gains achieved by the civil rights movement on both the local and national levels. This posture convinced African Americans, even self-identified conservatives, that the GOP was racist, leaving them little choice but to turn to the Democratic Party.
Even as the Democrats followed the Republicans’ rightward shift during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the party maintained African American support in large numbers because even Clinton’s more moderate brand of Democratic politics offered policies that seemed more likely to benefit African American communities than what Republicans were selling.
Today, although more than half of African Americans identify as moderate or conservative, Democrats often win more than 80 percent of the black vote in elections at every level. Black Americans now make up the most partisan racial group in the nation.
Since the 1980s, the most visible black Republicans have adopted a bombastic brand of conservatism, one that generates provocative headlines far more often than substantive critiques of the Democratic Party. Figures such as former “welfare brat” Star Parker and more recently YouTuber Candace Owens employ a rhetoric of hyper-individualism and political autonomy, often touting their independence from the Democratic Party’s “plantation.” Many point to the lopsided black voting patterns to assert that African Americans’ preoccupation with racism has limited the scope of their political intellect. In defending his right to “free thinking” and sanctifying the notion that black Americans have a real political choice, West joins this small band of provocateurs.
Yet the history of African American political partisanship illustrates that black voters have been and continue to be free thinkers. Through marches, uprisings, sit-ins and votes, African Americans have urged both parties to expand their definitions of civil and human rights. More often than not, both parties have come up short.
It is true that in the past, both Republicans and Democrats made strides toward advancing the freedoms of African American citizens — and were rewarded with black votes. The Democratic Party continues this tradition, especially on the local level. The GOP, by contrast, has become the party that attacks voting rights and includes members who defend the rights of white supremacists. That posture is what alienates African American voters and binds them to Democrats — not blind loyalty or obsequiousness. While Kanye West touts an individualist notion of freedom, his fellow black Americans are voting with their eye toward freedom for all Americans — something he sadly doesn’t seem to understand.