Bob Ray Sanders — Is today’s GOP your father’s Republican Party?


To this day, I don’t know how my father voted in the 1960 presidential election.

While we certainly had talks about the campaign around the kitchen table, arguing about candidates’ strengths and shortcomings, my father never divulged for whom he was voting. And I never asked him.

You see, Daddy loved debate, often instigating it and then taking the opposite point of a dominant view. Then, if you began to agree with him, he’d switch sides.

I was young, but I clearly remember some of the discussions we had. In light of the Republican Party’s announced re-branding initiative, I distinctly recall why my father, a proud black man, at least considered voting for Richard Nixon.

Beyond what he thought of Nixon as a political leader, my dad was astutely aware of the Democratic Party’s history in Texas. For decades, it wouldn’t allow black people to vote in the party primary. The Democrats finally lost that battle with a 1944 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (Smith v. Allwright).

Although the GOP was not much more welcoming, it appeared to him the Republican Party was a bit more inclusive in those days. He also was aware that there were competitive wings of both parties — northern vs. southern Democrats, for example — that challenged each other, debated, “horse-traded” and compromised.

My father admired Nixon’s statesmanship, thought him to be the better candidate on foreign policy issues, despite John F. Kennedy’s assertion to the contrary, and thought the Republican candidate had the better record on civil rights.

My father also liked President Dwight Eisenhower but fondly remembered President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Kennedy, while faced with the challenge of overcoming prejudices against his Catholic faith, particularly among Southern Baptists, did two things that ultimately secured him the election, with or without my father’s vote: He choose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, and in late October he called to check on Martin Luther King Jr. after he had been jailed in Georgia.

Johnson helped Kennedy carry Texas (although not by much) and at least a couple of other southern states. Though Kennedy’s call to King’s wife didn’t secure King’s endorsement, the civil rights leader’s father did come out for Kennedy.

Kennedy won with the slimmest of popular vote margins — 49.7 to 49.6 percent — thanks in part to the black vote. He received 85 percent of the black vote in Texas.

What Republicans today ought to take note of is that, despite Kennedy’s vigorous outreach to the black community beyond helping secure King’s release from jail, Nixon still got 32 percent of the black vote.

After President Barack Obama’s commanding victory last November, Republicans have been doing a lot of soul-searching and researching to find out what many people already knew or believed.

Party Chair Reince Priebus, in discussing findings in the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Project, said focus groups described a party of “stuffy old men” and called it “scary,” “narrow-minded” and “out-of-touch.”

He wants the party to reach out to those it has somehow excluded or rejected, like minorities, women and young people.

Priebus is planning a full-court outreach program, initially allocating $10 million for a technological and ground game to engage Latino groups, newly naturalized citizens, females and, of course, blacks who last November gave 96 percent of their vote to Obama.

In addition, the Republican National Committee wants to move up the party convention and limit the number of primary debates, actions it hopes will weed out less viable candidates more quickly and give the nominee more time and money to wage a general election campaign.

Regardless of these plans, Republicans will have to do a lot more than talk a good game, especially when they have members of Congress who are bent on practicing the opposite of what they preach.

It’s an internal conflict the Democrats love.

If my daddy were alive today, he would say they still have a lot of fence-mending to do. And my guess is he would be hard-pressed to vote for the Republican Party as we know it today.

Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may write to him at: 400 W. 7th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102, or via email at bobray@star-telegram.com.