District of Columbia: a civil rights issue

By Jack Kemp
Published May 22nd 2006 in Townhall.com
In the late 1850s, as the Republican Party was being formed out of an amalgamation of "free soilers", "whigs", "Liberals", "Know Nothings" (some of which are still around today) and "Black Republicans" who were Anglo, but labeled "Black" because they favored full and immediate emancipation. Mr. Lincoln stitched together enough of a coalition to win the Republican Party's nomination and eventually and thankfully the 1860 presidential election.

As Mr. Lincoln traveled in March of 1861 from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration, his tour stopped over in Philadelphia and a crowd gathered to see his train, and perhaps coax a speech out of the greatest communicator of the 19th century.

He appeared on the caboose of the train and spoke eloquent words about his political philosophy. He said, "I have never had a political thought that didn't arise from the declaration that all men are created equal - I'd rather be assassinated on this spot than to sacrifice my belief, that freedom is the ultimate destiny of all mankind."

The essence of Lincoln's philosophy was what carried the day and eventually led him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863. For Republicans, this legacy, combined with President Ulysses Grant's use of federal troops in the South to enforce voting and property rights for emancipated Blacks and later President Dwight Eisenhower's use of federal troops to integrate public schools in the '50s left the GOP a huge share of support from African-Americans. It lasted right up to 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon faced off against Sen. John F. Kennedy for the presidency.

Nixon was far ahead of Kennedy in October, according to Taylor Branch in his great history of the civil rights movement, "Parting the Waters," but in October of 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for a parking violation in Atlanta, while his wife Coretta was pregnant. Despite objections from some of his staff, Kennedy called Mrs. King that Saturday evening and conveyed his genuine sympathy. Conversely, despite urging from Nixon's Press Secretary, Herbert G. Klein, former editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers, a Republican "Southern Strategy" was born because Nixon did not make that fateful call.

Richard Nixon went from the a huge base of "Negro" votes down into the teens while Kennedy went from the teens to and overwhelming share of the Black vote, and ultimately, Nixon lost in one of the closest elections in history.

This betrayal of the Republican Party's civil rights legacy and indifference to the struggle of black Americans, coupled with Barry Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reduced the Republican Party to mere insignificance in the eyes of black voters. We have been near single digits ever since, to the shame of our party's historical foundation as the party of emancipation and civil rights for all.

Fast forward to 2006, the Republican Party, in desperate need of more votes in urban areas and among people of color, has a great chance to turn the tide by going "outside the box" politically speaking and leading the way, not only by extending en toto the Voting Rights Act, but extending the voting franchise to the residents of District of Columbia.

Throughout our nation's history, citizens of the District of Columbia have given the full measure of their allegiance to the United States. They have fought in and died in every war in which the United States was engaged; they have paid taxes; and they have provided labor and resources to the United States economy and government. Yet for 200 years, District residents have been bystanders in the governance of their nation.

As the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton has said, "It is time to fix the left over business from civil rights, and bring equal rights to all Americans, including District residents."

This is indeed a civil rights issue. Many argue the Constitution never intended for the capital city to be a state, therefore, giving the District a Congressional vote would instigate a track toward statehood which is "unconstitutional." However, not so long ago, the Constitution defined African-American people as "three-fifths of a man." This nation moved from that ugly point and did the right thing thanks in large part to the Lincoln wing of the Republican Party. It is time to do the right thing now.

The D.C. Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act (H.R. 5388), introduced by Rep Tom Davis, R-Va., and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., would add two voting members to the U.S. House of Representatives - one to represent Washington, D.C., and one to represent Utah.

These steps taken boldly and correctly by a GOP-dominated Congress and a Republican President would not only give roughly 600,000 D.C. residents and citizens of this great nation, most of whom are Democrats, a vote in the House of Representatives, it would resonate throughout America among people of color, that Republicans are serious about civil and voting rights for all people.

As for me, this is an historical turning point for the Grand Old Party to get on the right side of history.

Jack Kemp is Founder and Chairman of Kemp Partners and a contributing columnist to Townhall.com.