Robert Taft's 1946 Civil Rights Proposal:

Very interesting (but mercifully brief) piece by David Engstrom in the Winter 2006 Green Bag (not yet internet accessible but available on Westlaw at 9 Green Bag 2d 181):

few know that the history of American fair employment law reached an equally critical juncture more than 20 years earlier, in 1946. It was in May of that year that Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, perhaps the leading conservative voice in Congress at the time, privately approached an emerging coalition of civil rights, labor, religious, and civic groups with a draft bill — reproduced in its entirety at the end of this essay — that broadly prohibited job discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin and empowered federal courts to oversee sweeping injunctive remedies, including the requirement that employers hire a particular quota of protected workers. The stunning details of that proposal, and its quiet rejection by the nascent liberal coalition, offer a window onto the early, pre-Brown politics of civil rights in the United States. What makes the Taft episode so intriguing, however, are the rich counterfactual possibilities it presents. Though the liberal coalition's rejection of the Taft bill prevented its formal introduction in Congress, a contrary response would have fundamentally altered the course of American fair employment law and the American civil rights movement along with it. More sweeping still, it is not at all implausible that enactment of the Taft measure would have transformed the post-war American party system, making Republicans, not the sectionally challenged Democrats, the party of civil rights going forward. It is therefore surprising that Taft's offer has entirely escaped popular or scholarly treatment until now.

Stephen Carter (mail):
The politics of the era were quite complicated. For example, a few years after Taft, none other than Vice President Richard Nixon hit upon the idea of blasting apart the newly formed New Deal Coalition through Republican support of a Voting Rights Act. He argued to Eisenhower that the Republicans could hold onto the black votes they already had and get more. But Ike was unenthusiastic and the Southern Democrats who ran the Senate (including Lyndon Johnson) made clear that the proposal would never come to a vote.

The story is told in a number of places, including the better Nixon and Eisenhower biographies, and of course Caro's Master of the Senate.

We tend to take current political arrangements as given, but they are to a large extent artifacts of actual decisions in the past. Had Eisenhower latched onto the proposal and pushed it, it is unlikely that the Democrats could have won the White House in 1960.

(Please note that I am not saying that Nixon was a great liberal. For him, the historians say, the idea was political calculation. Nevertheless, the counter-factual possibilities are fascinating.)
3.22.2006 7:11pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

It is therefore surprising that Taft's offer has entirely escaped popular or scholarly treatment until now.

Considering the number of people who think Democrats voted in the majority for civil rights legislation, and Republicans against, I don't see why you find it surprising.
3.22.2006 8:47pm
lee (mail):
Are you talking about the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act passed over President Truman's veto. Truman called it a "slave labor bill." It permits so-called right to work laws and numerous other anti-labor provisions.
3.22.2006 8:51pm
Chuck Jackson (mail):
If I recall correctly, Nixon was a member of the NAACP and that fact was used in the South in the 1952 and 1956 elections to argue against the republican ticket.

Southern democrats denounced Nixon for his policies on racial issues.

See CNN article

That article, reportedly from Time magazine Sept. 9, 1957 contains the following:

When the sparring and slugging of the civil rights fight finally ended last week, the political judges at ringside began picking the winners. The consensus, pending confirmation at the polls: the Republicans, as a party, be a decision — and Vice President Richard Nixon, as an individual, by a knockout.

The original bill was sent to Capitol Hill by a Republican Administration and supported there by a heavy Republican majority. But Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson took it over and nearly succeeded, with softening amendments, in making it a Democratic Party bill. That bill pleased hardly anyone: Southern popular sentiment was clearly against any bill at all, while the North held its nose at the weak Johnson version. In the final result, it was House Republicans and Assistant Attorney General Bill Rogers who managed to put some teeth back into the bill.

Through the fight, long after G.O.P. Senate Leader William Knowland had through in the towel and when even House Republican Leader Joe Martin was considering retreat, Vice President Nixon punched hard for a meaningful bill. The verdict on his efforts was best rendered by his opponents. Just when the Senate was about to pass his watered-down bill, Democrat Johnson arose to attack Nixon for leading "a concerted propaganda campaign" against it. And last week, after the final vote on the civil rights bill had been taken, Georgia's Senator Richard Russell, the most influential Southerner of them all, paid Nixon a bitter sort of tribute. Said Russell: the civil rights bill will be enforced by "political-minded" Attorney General Herbert Brownell who, in turn, will be "constantly pressed by the Vice President of the U.S. to apply the great powers of the law to the Southern states at such places and in such time and manner as the N.A.A.C.P., of which the Vice President is the most distinguished member, may demand.
3.22.2006 8:52pm
How interesting. Gosh I feel lied to.
3.22.2006 9:29pm
Brett Bellmore (mail):
Am I missing something? I thought Repubicans WERE the party of civil rights... At least, until "civil rights" stopped meaning equal treatment under the law, and changed into a codeword for racial spoils.
3.22.2006 9:38pm
EricRasmusen (mail) (www):
The Taft proposal is most interesting not because it was a civil rights proposal, but because it was a labor regulation proposal. The Republicans were always for voting rights for blacks, as the comments note. A job discrimination bill is different, though, because it enroaches on federalism--- at least if it is not limited to interstate-commerce jobs such as railroad jobs. I'm surprised Taft didn't worry about that.
3.22.2006 10:21pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
(Please note that I am not saying that Nixon was a great liberal. For him, the historians say, the idea was political calculation. Nevertheless, the counter-factual possibilities are fascinating.)
If we're talking about racial counterfactuals, note that Jackie Robinson supported Richard Nixon over Kennedy in 1960 (precisely because of Nixon's past pro-civil rights history). During that campaign, Martin Luther King was jailed, and Robinson begged Nixon to call his wife in a show of support. Nixon refused, but Kennedy called her. What if Nixon had listened to Robinson and called her? What would that have done to the black vote? Given how close the 1960 election was, it wouldn't have taken much to swing it. If Nixon wins in 1960 because of the black vote... who knows?
3.22.2006 10:35pm
Cynicus Prime (mail) (www):
Wouldn't such a law have been declared unconsitutional right along with all the university quota systems in the 70s and 80s?
3.22.2006 10:42pm
Jim Rhoads (mail):
I do not believe the act referred to in the essay was what became the Taft Hartley Act.

TH was passed over Truman's veto. It amended the NLRA to, among other things, provide for unfair labor practices for unions, including the prohibition of secondary boycotts.
3.22.2006 10:48pm
James Lindgren (mail):
Thanks to David B. and David Engstrom for a fascinating bit of history.
3.22.2006 10:49pm
There have clearly been some pro-civil-rights Republicans. Some for cynical reasons. Some sincere. But they lacked the will or ability to gather enough support for their proposals.

But the reality is that it was Democrat Lyndon Johnson who was actually able to ram a civil rights bill through Congress. That's why the Democrats get credit for the measure.

As professor Carter says, if a Republican had been able to pass a civil rights bill, "the counter-factual possibilities are fascinating." If the Democrats had clung to the Southern White voter, and Republicans took the progressives (on race), how would that have affected the rest of positions the parties took (taxes, abortion, business v. labor, etc.)?
3.23.2006 4:49am
Stephen Carter (mail):
Concerning the responses to my post, note that the voting rights bill Nixon supported was not the same as the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which is the subject of the Time Magazine excerpt. That bill, although important symbolically, had little practical effect, establishing federal civil rights enforcers who could do almost nothing. Nixon actually favored a bill that would have provided a strong federal enforcement role in cases of discrimination against black voters. (Remember that two of the three legs of the stool that supported the Democratic Party in those days were Southern whites and Northern blacks. Blacks in the South could not vote. The third leg was union voters.)

Second, one post asks whether the Republicans were the party of civil rights. No doubt in the 1860s they were. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, there was no party of civil rights. Unlike the current era, there were significant numbers of liberals and conservatives in both parties. Both parties included significant minorities urging strong federal action to protect blacks against discrimination; both parties included equally significant minorities dead-set against it. Neither party made it a high enough priority to take on its own anti-civil rights folks.

Eisenhower in particular was unwilling to offer a public endorsement of even Brown v. Board of Education, despite being begged by some of his advisers, and, for that matter, neither was Nixon, who said that it seemed to violate the Court's precedents. Eisenhower, according to his biographers, told friends that he understood perfectly well why Southern mothers did not want their children sitting next to black boys in school. On the other hand, Adam Clayton Powell bolted the Democratic Party in 1956 to endorse Eisenhower after the Democratic convention could not agree on a strong plank supporting the Brown result.

So, you see, matters were complex.
3.23.2006 7:07am
The Mike Porter (mail):
Fact: A higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in both the House and the Senate. The battle was within the Democtratic party, who had significant majorities in both the House and Senate in the sixties. The Republicans were already on board to a greater extent than the Democrats. I believe this is what Charlie (Colorado) was refering to in his post. Of course, if you got your news from the likes of Cralter Wrongkite and Dan Blather, it is understandable that you would think otherwise.
3.23.2006 8:29am
Average Joe (mail):
This is a fascinating topic about which even most educated people know nothing. I know a little so I just wish to second Stephen Carter's point that "matters were complex" and illustrate this complexity with a few more facts.

Some VC readers may not know much about Robert Taft. He was the son of former President W. H. Taft and an interesting and powerful figure in his own right. He was one of the few (perhaps only?) members of Congress to oppose the Japanese internment bill of March 1942. He was also the undoubted leader of the conservative wing of the Republican party.

Another political group that was in favor of civil rights was the American Communist Party (CPUSA). At this time, as throughout its history, the CPUSA was effectively the American branch of the Soviet Communist Party (see, e.g., any of the books by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes on the CPUSA) and its interest in civil rights seemed to be somewhat less than honorable. As I recall, they were interested in pushing forward divisive issues that divided, and they hoped, weakened, the country, and thought that civil rights was just such an issue.

And of course, when you mention Communists, you have got to mention Joseph McCarthy. What was his stand on civil rights? McCarthy was definitely pro-Civil Rights and in fact he campaigned in black neighborhoods in Milwaukee. I also seen to recall that, when he started in the Senate, McCarthy was viewed as one of the more liberal Repubilicans, because he was more supportive of New Deal programs than the Taft wing of the Repubilcan party. Of course McCarthy's nemesis, William Fulbright, was famously anti-Civil Rights and pro-Segregationist.

So you see, matters really were quite complex and they defy the easy stereotyping that so many people often embrace.
3.23.2006 8:38am
Craig Oren (mail):
In 1947-1948, the Republicans had a majority in both the House and Senate. Perhaps, then, the Taft bill would have gotten through Congress -- if, that is, the Senate supporters would have been able to break a filibuster. And perhaps it would have delivered more northern black votes to the Republicans, possibly altering the 1948 election.

Jackie Robinson was not the only prominent black to support Nixon. Originally, Martin Luther King, Sr., endorsed Nixon. He changed his mind after JFK made the phone call and, in King's words, "dried my daughter's tears."

The Nixon campaign in 1960 never could decide what to do on the civil rights issue Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's VP candidate, endorsed having a black in the cabinet. That didn't help the ticket down south, and it helped lead to the Kennedy win in crucial southern states.
3.23.2006 10:18am
El Capitan (mail):
"As professor Carter says, if a Republican had been able to pass a civil rights bill, "the counter-factual possibilities are fascinating." If the Democrats had clung to the Southern White voter, and Republicans took the progressives (on race), how would that have affected the rest of positions the parties took (taxes, abortion, business v. labor, etc.)?"

I personally think that the parties would have ended up looking in many ways like they do today. The election of 1958 was in many ways the turning point for modern realignment, as it foreshadowed that Democrats were on a liberal trend, and that the days of conservative southerner's dominance of the party were over. That landslide provided the base that would eventually strip "old bull" conservative Democrats of their committee posts, and prevent civil rights laws from being bottled up in committee. Also, the increasing affluence of the South had a good part to do with the shift toward Republicans, as Republicans began to make gains in states like Florida and Texas long before they became associated with the "anti-civil rights" position. (It's worth noting that the Southern Republicans all voted against the civil rights act of '64).

Indeed, there were some signs of a shift toward Republicans in the South in the 1920s. As the congressional results from 1924 and 1928 show, even the deepest parts of the South were creeping toward becoming a two-party state until the Great Depression wiped out much of the economic progress the South had slowly experienced (and at a time when Republicans were regularly introducing and fighting for anti-lynching bills).
3.23.2006 10:27am
Tyrone Slothrop (mail) (www):
the liberal coalition's rejection of the Taft bill prevented its formal introduction in Congress

Why did the liberal coalition reject the Taft bill?
3.23.2006 10:45am
Justin (mail):
At worst, it would mean the conservative, Southern oriented Democratic party (you know, the party of Reagan) would be in charge, including Democratic president George Bush, who Republicans including myself would have attacked for invading Iraq and other events.

I mean, despite some revisionist history by Brett Bellmore and others, the political/cultural identity of the Southern Democrats are now the GOP, and the Rockefeller/Taft Republicans are now Democrats. Though the happenstance of the party names may have changed, there's no reason to believe that this would lead to a society in which these two groups would be in perpetual conflict, naturally choosing opposite parties.
3.23.2006 12:11pm
Justin (mail):
Tyrone presents a very good question - the presumption would be that the bill did not go far enough - the (mostly Republican) liberal coalition groups in the 1940s were pretty leftist - see the book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" to describe the progression and death of the Progressive Movement. The liberal coalition that formed in the 1950s was a very different group, one more bottom-up than top down, and with a much stronger influence of Jews and African American leaders than the older progressives, who were probably to the left of the later movement, but also (which is why I'm not entirely sure), less involved in civil rights - worker's rights and economic equality were much bigger issues for the old progressives.
3.23.2006 12:15pm
Curt Wilson:
I was fascinated to see Stephen Carter's comment. I fall into the camp of those who believe that Nixon's implementation of aggressive affirmative action policies circa 1970 was fundamentally an attempt -- largely successful -- to split the remaining Democratic coalition. 35 years later, most Democrats still don't realize this.
3.23.2006 4:39pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
I was about to make the point -- indeed, I did make it here -- that I found it surprising no one had yet made the point that Nixon's "Philadelphia Plan" launched the destructive descent of "affirmative action" down the road to racial preferences, but before I could get to it Curt Wilson made the similar point immediately above. And one could go on, by pointing out Republican responsibility for "majority/minority" voting districts, but that would be too depressing....
3.23.2006 11:13pm
If I remember right Senator Fulbright was the Senator that Bill clinton was very fond of. Fulbright helped him dodge the draft.
3.24.2006 12:28am