George H.W. Bush Was Not a Civil Rights Hero

May 24, 2012Mark Schmitt

In a cover story at National Review, Kevin D. Williamson attempts to rewrite the history of race and politics to tell a story in which Republicans not only were, but always have been, the party of civil rights and racial reconciliation, even in the South, against Democratic resistance.

As I pointed out in a recent review of a book about moderates in the Republican Party, there’s no point in denying that Republicans supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in greater numbers than Democrats and that most of the members of the Southern Caucus were Democrats. But it’s also very tough to make the case that those Southern Democrats have any continuity with today’s Democrats when most of them either became Republicans themselves (like former Senator Trent Lott) or were succeeded by very conservative Republicans who rely entirely on the same white votes. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has offered just one of the thorough rebuttals to Williamson.

Williamson’s alternative history mostly works through distortion and omission rather than outright falsehood – overlooking, for example, the entire 38 years that South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond spent as a Republican, or all the non-Southern, pro-Civil Rights Democrats. Jonathan Chait notes that “as his one data point, Williamson cites the victory of George Bush in Texas over a Democrat who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Chait points out that Bush also opposed the 1964 Act, but there’s a bigger error in Williamson’s one data point. Williamson writes, “Segregationist Democrats were thrown out by southern voters in favor of civil-rights Republicans. One of the loudest Democratic segregationists in the House was Texas’s John Dowdy, a bitter and buffoonish opponent of the 1964 reforms... Dowdy was thrown out in 1966 in favor of a Republican with a very respectable record on civil rights, a little-known figure by the name of George H. W. Bush."

In fact, Dowdy wasn’t “thrown out” by anyone. He served in the House uninterrupted until a scandal in 1973. Bush’s opponent was a local prosecutor named Frank Briscoe.

Bush won an open seat, created by a massive Texas redistricting in 1966, which created three new congressional districts in the Houston area. And that’s important, because the redistricting was itself a civil rights move. Previously, Texas districts had been disproportionately weighted toward the rural (and white) population, and congressional districts varied in population from just 400,000 to almost a million people with a single representative. The rapidly growing African-American and Hispanic populations in the cities were sharply unrepresented. In a 1964 case, Wesberry v. Sanders, the Supreme Court applied the one-person, one-vote principle to congressional districts, which forced the redistricting. In addition to creating Bush's affluent Republican district, that ruling created a state senate seat that was won by Barbara Jordan, the first African-American to serve in that body since Reconstruction, and a congressional district that Jordan won in 1972.

The elder Bush, it turns out, was not so much an advocate for civil rights as a secondary beneficiary of it. And with that, Williamson’s one data point crumbles along with the rest of his argument.

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