Skip to main content

GOP, time to rebrand in the image of the 'Great Emancipator'

By Wade Henderson, Special to CNN
updated 3:43 PM EST, Wed January 2, 2013
Wade Henderson thinks the modern Republican Party should look to Abraham Lincoln for some inspiration.
Wade Henderson thinks the modern Republican Party should look to Abraham Lincoln for some inspiration.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wade Henderson: January 1 is 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation
  • He says GOP should look to Lincoln, a canny politician who led moral fight on civil rights
  • He says GOP has history of civil rights support that it has largely abandoned in recent years
  • Henderson: In 2012, election minority voters unimpressed; GOP should return to roots

Editor's note: Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund.

(CNN) -- On January 1, the nation will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally freed slaves in the secessionist Southern states. Meanwhile, thousands of theaters will still be presenting the film "Lincoln," portraying the soon-to-be-martyred president's efforts in January 1865 to persuade the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery throughout the nation.

Coming at a time when many Republicans are seeking to rebrand their party, these commemorations of the first Republican president raise this question: Why not refashion the Grand Old Party in the image of the Great Emancipator?

Steven Spielberg's historical drama, as well as the biography upon which it is based, Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," both remind today's Americans that Lincoln was not only a moral leader but also a practical politician. The political identity that Lincoln forged for the fledgling Republican Party -- uniting the nation while defending individual rights -- was a winning formula for half a century, with the GOP winning 11 of 13 presidential elections from 1860 through 1908.

Wade Henderson
Wade Henderson

Moreover, support for civil rights persisted in the party throughout the last century. Among the Republican presidents of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt famously hosted Booker T. Washington at the White House. Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce school desegregation. Richard Nixon expanded affirmative action. And George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

Brazile: A turning point for freedom in America, 150 years later

Emancipation Proclamation turns 150

In the U.S. Senate, such prominent Republicans as Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (the first African-American senator since Reconstruction), Jacob Javits of New York and Everett Dirksen of Illinois were strong supporters of civil rights, as were governors such as Nelson Rockefeller in New York, George Romney in Massachusetts and William Scranton in Pennsylvania.

Former California Gov. Earl Warren served as chief justice when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ordering the desegregation of the nation's schools. As recently as 1996, the Republican national ticket consisted of two strong civil rights advocates, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and former New York Rep. Jack Kemp.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Unfortunately, by 2012, the Republican Party had veered far from its heritage as the party of Lincoln. Prominent Republicans supported statewide voter suppression laws that hit hardest at vulnerable minorities or called for the "self-deportation" of immigrants and their families.

While some Republican senatorial nominees needlessly offended women, leading moderates such as Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe and Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette opted for retirement. In what I hope was rock bottom, 38 Senate Republicans rebuffed their former presidential nominee Bob Dole -- a wheelchair-bound war hero -- to block an international civil and human rights treaty for people with disabilities.

150 years later, myths persist about the Emancipation Proclamation

Not surprisingly, the GOP in the presidential race lost the black vote by 87 points, the Asian-American vote by 47 points, the Latino vote by 44 points and the women's vote by 11 points, according to CNN exit polls. As Republicans reflect on their path forward with minority voters and persuadable whites, there are opportunities to advance civil rights.

Lincoln historian fact checks new movie
Lessons in "Lincoln" for Obama
Movie Pass: 'Lincoln'
Sally Field: 25-lb. gain 'horrifying'

While the GOP has increasingly promoted diverse candidates, it has not yet begun to reflect the values of our diverse nation. Fiscally conservative officeholders can fight for civil and human rights.

Just a few years ago, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions championed a reduction in the sentencing disparity between people charged with possession of crack and powder cocaine. These are two forms of the same drug, but crack cocaine is used more by minorities and carried much harsher punishments for possession. Working with Sessions, civil rights advocates pushed to reduce this disparity significantly -- among the greatest advances in criminal justice reform in decades.

Looking forward to the 113th Congress, there are several civil rights initiatives that would fit conservative values. They need congressional champions. Conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist and conservative strategist Richard Viguerie have called for criminal justice reforms that would reduce the number of prisoners in U.S. prisons.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has joined the civil rights coalition's call for federal initiatives to narrow the educational achievement gap between minority and white students. And more Republicans are joining Jeb Bush's support for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for long-term, law-abiding residents.

Most importantly, the GOP must embrace one of Lincoln's most enduring legacies, the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race. The GOP must stop trying to suppress voters and begin to champion electoral reform that shortens lines and helps more people to vote.

Opinion: What Obama can learn from Lincoln

I don't expect another Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass from the modern Republican Party -- I'll settle for a few more Jeff Sessions. When Republicans consider the consequences for their party's narrow appeal, they'll try to return to their roots.

I'm happy to help.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wade Henderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT