Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Beyond partisan politics and personal ambition, voting rights – who has them and who doesn’t – is the story of America.
President Joe Biden, near the end of his riveting speech in support of voting rights in Atlanta last week, challenged Republicans by laying down a particularly resonant historical gauntlet. Did the GOP want to be on the side of “Dr. King or George Wallace?” Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, infamously vowed to defend “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” in 1963 as he became the most visible symbol of White supremacy as expressed by elected officials during the civil rights era.
Wallace famously vowed to defend Alabama from racial integration by blocking the entry of Black students (accompanied by federal officials) who desegregated the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. His embrace of segregation as a path to power was deliberate; after being defeated in an earlier gubernatorial bid, he reportedly told a journalist that “nobody listened” when he talked about infrastructure or education, but when he stoked racist fervor (he used different words), they “stomped the floor.”
Wallace’s hard-sought infamy on race matters catapulted him into the national political scene. His 1968 presidential campaign attracted almost 10 million popular votes and threatened to put the election in the House of Representatives if neither Republican Richard Nixon nor Democrat Hubert Humphrey achieved the necessary electoral college majority.
Wallace’s robust campaign pushed the GOP further right, modeling the “Southern Strategy” – no to busing, racial integration of schools and neighborhoods, social welfare, racial justice and taxes – that would become the Republican Party’s hallmark until the rise of Donald Trump galvanized racially motivated, politicized denials of reality as the party’s most defining characteristic.
Even Wallace, who ran for governor successfully, for a fourth term in 1982, admitted that his pro-segregation past had been a “mistake,” and was elected with support from Black voters in Alabama who gave him a second chance.
Response to Biden’s remarks, particularly his use of history, was swift: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “incoherent” and “beneath his (Biden’s) office,” while Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois called it “stark” and suggested that some felt it “went a little too far.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the president’s question that “he was not comparing them as humans, he was comparing the choice to those figures in history,” and Vice President Kamala Harris pushed back against GOP criticism, saying that Biden “compared this time to a previous time in our history, which is apt for comparison.”
But what’s striking about Biden’s historical gauntlet – and the response to it – are some of the other comparisons he made in his speech. He didn’t just contrast Martin Luther King Jr. with George Wallace; he contrasted civil rights activist and congressional legend John Lewis with Birmingham law enforcement official Bull Connor, known for ordering the brutal use of violence against peaceful demonstrators in the 1960s. He contrasted President Abraham Lincoln with Confederate Jefferson Davis.
In doing so, Biden’s speech put front and center how far we have come since the civil rights era and how long the road ahead is. By invoking both civil rights and Civil War era conflicts over racism as integral to 21st-century voting rights, Biden acknowledged that no aspect of America’s history on matters of race is separate or divisible from what came before it.
Of all the names Biden invoked, perhaps the most telling was Strom Thurmond – former governor of South Carolina, longtime US Senator and failed presidential candidate. Like Thurmond, some of the most strident past opponents of voting rights for Black Americans, southern Democrats – nicknamed “Dixiecrats” for their advocacy of racial segregation and the denial of Black citizenship – came, over time, to support congressional extension of the voting rights protections.
Thurmond was once of the most vociferous proponents of racial segregation in postwar America. In fact, Thurmond led the segregationist forces who marched out of the 1948 Democratic Party convention in opposition to the strong civil rights platform. Thurmond ran for president that year – in a four-way race against incumbent Harry S. Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey and progressive Henry Wallace – on a states’ rights ticket. In 1957, Sen. Thurmond staged an over 24-hour long filibuster against a Civil Rights Bill that, despite being passed, contained virtually no provisions that would end racial segregation or enforce voting rights. He did this on principle alone, and to send a message to supporters of civil rights.
Yet over the ensuing decades, Thurmond, according to Biden, came to support voting rights during his later years in the Senate. For all its limitations, his was still an extraordinary transformation, one that seemed impossible in Thurmond’s own time and – mind-bogglingly – seems even more impossible to imagine today.
Indeed, as late as 2006, when Congress passed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act, the Senate voted 98-0 in support. Even in 1965 when the VRA was originally passed, 30 Republicans voted for it, along with 49 Democrats.
Even after political realignment occurred in the wake of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s the nation’s political center held enough to enable bipartisan support for voting rights. Yet in 2022, not a single Republican senator has expressed willingness to support the John Lewis Act, a piece of legislation that would help restore the political status quo on voting access the country experienced between 1965-2013, until the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Two Democratic senators, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have expressed support for voting rights but an unwillingness to tinker with the filibuster rules (which, as Barack Obama reminds us, remain a relic of the Jim Crow era) to allow a vote to take place.
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In essence the Republican Party in 2022 resembles, in troubling ways, Dixiecrats of yesteryear, a party so extreme that it stands in contrast to the eventual political moderation on voting rights displayed by Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. The GOP represents a firewall against the basic and normal functioning of American democracy, one whose power exceeds that of its political forbears in ways that threaten the nation’s most hallowed institutions.
This is surely one main reason why Biden, who served in the United States Senate from 1973-2009, looked to history to try and change hearts and minds in the run up to a political and legislative battle that may decide the future of American democracy – as well as his own chances for reelection in 2024.