One of the most-asked questions among people who are part of the conservative movement is: “Why do black people overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party when they were staunch Republicans in the past?” It is an issue that has vexed right-leaning politicians, media figures, and others for decades.
Conservatives have put forth several theories as to why this black exodus occurred. One of the most common is that African Americans suddenly became mentally enslaved and enamored with President Franklin Roosevelt’s socialist programs. But a closer examination of history reveals that this belief isn’t rooted in fact. To understand this issue, one must look to the past, starting with the Lily-White movement.
What Was the Lily-White Movement?
The Lily-White movement, which began shortly after Reconstruction ended, was the result of a burgeoning backlash against the Republican Party’s close relationship to newly freed black slaves. It was made up of southern white Republicans who resented the fact that the Party of Lincoln continued to cultivate its relationship with African Americans, elevating them to high positions of power in its ranks.
Adherents of the Lily-White movement believed that the Republican Party was not as concerned with the needs and concerns of southern whites as it should have been. Moreover, they thought that if the GOP was going to become a national party, it would need to court white southerners to break the Democratic Party’s hold over the South. Being aligned with African Americans would make this effort more difficult.
In his book, Republicans and the Black Vote, author Michael K. Fauntroy explained the political battlefield on which the GOP had to compete to begin making inroads with southern voters. He writes:
“Democrats were successful for two reasons. First, they made overt racial appeals to the considerable racist hostility and anxiety that existed among whites during the period. Second, Republicans responded to the new competition by mimicking Democrats in hopes that they would maintain control of southern governments. The appeal was simple: Democrats charged that the Republican Party was the ‘party of the Negro’ and that it had to be crushed to return the South to its pre-Reconstruction white supremacist roots. The perception that the GOP was too supportive of black freedom and equality and its electoral implications became a political albatross for Republicans, who began to fear being marginalized by the Democrats.”
The new focus on the South created a rift that split the Republican Party into two factions: the Lily-Whites and the Black and Tans. These two groups warred for control of the party, but the Lily-Whites gradually got the upper hand.
The Lily-Whites then began to systematically pull the GOP away from the African American community, ousting black leaders and deliberately alienating black voters. Through overt and covert politicking, they succeeded in diminishing African Americans’ influence in high positions and the white Republicans who supported them.
The conflict between the two factions played out in states like South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, and others. But it was the battle over the Texas Republican Party that seems to be the most noteworthy.
Struggle for the Texas GOP
The war for control of the Texas Republican Party began right after Reconstruction concluded. Shortly before this, Edmund J. Davis won the gubernatorial election in 1869. Davis was very much in favor of empowering freed slaves and gave them greater influence in the party. Two black state senators named G.T. Ruby and Matthew Gaines were also elected to the 12th legislature.
However, this period of growth for black people in the party would be short-lived. The Texas State Historical Association notes:
“Reconstruction ended in 1873 with the defeat of Davis, an event hailed by a former governor as ‘the restoration of White supremacy and Democratic rule.’ The number of Blacks in the legislature dropped, and White Democrats began reestablishing control of Texas politics.”
In the early 1880s, Norris Wright Cuney became a prominent leader among Texas black Republicans. As the leader of the Galveston chapter of the Union League, he mounted a challenge to the southern whites who wished to wrest control of the party from those who embraced African Americans. It was he who gave these individuals the “Lily-White” moniker.
As the situation became worse for the Black and Tans, they sometimes had to form alliances with a Democratic faction despite the party being dominated by white supremacists. In 1892, Cuney encouraged black voters to support George Clark, the Democratic candidate against Governor James S. Hogg, to try to split the Democrats in the state. However, this gambit proved unsuccessful.
To make matters worse for the Black and Tans, Democrat Grover Cleveland won the presidency. This meant that Cuney and other black GOP leaders lost the support at the federal level that they had enjoyed under President Benjamin Harrison. The Texas State Historical Association noted:
“Southern GOP leaders, Black and White, relied upon the dispensation of federal jobs to maintain their state organizations; and when Cuney lost out under Cleveland, the door was opened for a lily-white takeover. Though Cuney was replaced as national committeeman as well as state chairman during the 1896 campaign, other black and tan leaders emerged to lead the state party.”
While other Black and Tans were still fighting the Lily-Whites, the movement suffered another setback when Cuney passed away in 1897. An internal struggle ensued upon his death, but two major figures emerged. Edward H.R. Green, the son of a multimillionaire, aligned himself with William “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald, a black banker from Ft. Worth.
Unfortunately, their collaboration was unable to stymie the efforts of the Lily-Whites, and Cecil A. Lyon, a white businessman, took control of the Texas GOP and pursued the movement’s anti-black agenda. He headed the party and the movement until his death in 1915.
Ironically, despite the best efforts of the Lily-White movement, they failed to overthrow the Democrats in the South, and the party would control these states until the early 1990s. In essence, the Republican Party began abandoning its relationship with the black community and had nothing to show for it.
The Legacy of the Lily-Whites
The Lily-White movement persisted in most southern states even into the 1960s when it was in its death throes. Still, its legacy started the process of black Americans being shunned by the former Party of Lincoln and seeking out the Democratic Party as a viable alternative.
Of course, it is important to note that this transition did not happen overnight. But the entrenchment of Lily-White thought in the GOP resulted in a series of faulty decisions throughout history that further alienated the black community and ushered in the political landscape that is seen today.
Long after the demise of the Lily-White movement, well-meaning Republicans and conservatives are left trying to understand why the black vote has been lost to them for decades. Most do not know how the party got to where it is in 2021. But if conservatives want the Republican Party to return to its roots, it must first understand the journey that led to this moment. Otherwise, there can be no change.
Read more from Jeff Charles.