President Joe Biden, near the end of his riveting pro-suffrage speech in Atlanta last week, challenged Republicans with a particularly resonant historic gauntlet. Did the GOP want to side with “Dr. King or George Wallace?” Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, infamously swore to stand for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” in 1963 as he became the most visible symbol of white supremacy expressed by elected officials in the civil rights era.
Wallace famous wish
defend Alabama from racial integration by block the entrance
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 a previous 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 “trampled the ground”.
Wallace’s strong campaign pushed the GOP farther right, modeling the “Southern Strategy” — no to buses, racial integration of schools and neighborhoods, welfare, racial justice and taxes — which would become the hallmark of the Republican Party until the rise of Donald Trump. galvanized racist and politicized denials of reality as the party’s most defining characteristic.
Even Wallace, who successfully ran for governor for a fourth term in 1982, admitted
that his pro-segregation past had been a “mistake” and was elected with the support of black voters in Alabama who gave him a second chance.
The response to Biden’s remarks, particularly his use of history, was swift: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “incoherent” and “under his (Biden’s) desk.” , while Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois called him
“austere” and suggested that some felt it was “going a bit too far”. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the president’s question that “he wasn’t comparing them as humans, he was comparing the choice to these characters in history,” and Vice President Kamala Harris pushed back
against GOP critics, saying Biden “compared this time to a previous time in our history, which is conducive to comparison.”
But what’s striking about Biden’s historic gauntlet — and the response to it — are some of the other comparisons he made in his speech. He didn’t just pit Martin Luther King Jr. against George Wallace; he pitted civil rights activist and Congress legend John Lewis against Birmingham law enforcement official Bull Connor, known for order the brutal use of violence
against peaceful protesters in the 1960s. He pitted President Abraham Lincoln against Confederate Jefferson Davis.
In doing so, Biden’s speech brought to the fore how far we’ve come since the civil rights era and how far we have to go. By invoking both civil rights and Civil War-era conflicts over racism as integral to suffrage in the 21st century, Biden acknowledged that no aspect of America’s history in matter of race is separate or divisible from what preceded it.
Of all the names Biden invoked
Perhaps most telling was Strom Thurmond – a former governor of South Carolina, longtime US senator and failed presidential candidate. Like Thurmond, some of the most outspoken former opponents of black American suffrage, southern Democrats — dubbed “Dixiecrats” for their advocacy of racial segregation and the denial of black citizenship — have come, over the time, support Congress’s extension of voting rights protections.
Thurmond was once one of the most vocal proponents of racial segregation in postwar America. In fact, Thurmond led the segregationist forces that left 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 state rights ticket. In 1957, Senator Thurmond staging
a more than 24-hour filibuster against a civil rights bill that, despite passing, contained virtually no provisions that would end racial segregation or enforce the right to vote. He did so purely out of principle and to send a message to civil rights supporters.
Yet in the decades that followed, Thurmond, according to Biden, came to support suffrage in his final years in the Senate. For all his limits
, it was still a extraordinary transformation
, which seemed impossible in Thurmond’s day and – mind-bogglingly – seems even more impossible to imagine today.
Indeed, as recently as 2006, when Congress passed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act, the Senate voted 98 to 0. Even in 1965, when the VRA was initially adopted, 30 Republicans voted for,
with 49 Democrats.
Even after the political realignment that occurred in the wake of the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, the country’s political center held enough to allow for bipartisan support for suffrage. Yet in 2022, not a single Republican senator has expressed a willingness to support the John Lewis Act, legislation that would help restore the political status quo on access to the vote that the country enjoyed between 1965 and 2013, until to the decision of the Supreme Court in Shelby County vs. Holder
emptied the main provisions of the law on the right to vote. Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, expressed
support for the right to vote but reluctance to change the filibuster rules (which, as Barack Obama reminds us, remain a relic of the Jim Crow era) to allow a vote to take place.
In essence, the Republican Party in 2022 looks uncannily like the Dixiecrats of yesteryear, a party so extreme that it contrasts with the eventual political moderation on the franchise displayed by Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. The GOP represents a firewall against the basic and normal functioning of American democracy, whose power exceeds that of its political ancestors in a way that threatens the nation’s most sacred institutions.
This is surely one of the main reasons why Biden, who served in the US Senate from 1973 to 2009, turned to history to try to change hearts and minds as a battle approached. political and legislative body that could decide the future of American democracy — as well as his own chances of re-election in 2024.