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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT