Timothy Thurber, Ph.D.

Professor’s book explores relationship between African Americans and the GOP

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Timothy Thurber, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, has written a new book titled “Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945-1974.”

Thurber studies civil rights and party politics in 20th century America. His research highlights how the struggle for racial equality influenced the Republican Party, including the GOP’s significant role in determining the timing and content of racial policies — education, housing, employment, voting and segregation in public accommodations.

In his book, Thurber writes about the long history of tension between African Americans and the Republican Party. However, he said, “The party sometimes sided with the civil rights movement and as a result, helped make the nation more egalitarian.”

In response to questions about his book and the upcoming elections, including Virginia’s gubernatorial race, Thurber offered the following thoughts.  

How did the GOP shape the modern civil rights movement?

Republicans influenced the post-World War II civil rights struggle by helping to determine the timing and content of what the federal government did regarding racial issues nationwide. The power of southern Democrats in Congress meant that no legislation could pass unless it had substantial Republican support. Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon also exerted important influence. Republican support was necessary to pass the two most significant civil rights laws of this era – the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These laws primarily affected the South; Republicans were less willing to press for federal action (such as school integration) that could potentially change the racial status quo in their home states and districts – which tended to be in the North and West. Republicans also clashed with civil rights organizations and leaders over federal efforts to combat poverty.  

How does your book relate to the political climate that exists currently on both a national and statewide level, including the upcoming gubernatorial election?

I believe that it is going to be very hard for the GOP to substantially increase its share of the African American vote unless the party changes in significant ways. Many African Americans work in the public sector, which Republicans demonize as wasteful and inefficient. Republicans at the federal as well as state and local levels have favored budget cuts that heavily impact African Americans, even as they continue to support spending in other areas. The recent vote in Congress to cut food stamps while continuing agricultural subsidies, which tend to benefit the wealthy, illustrates this contrast. Republicans in numerous states have also hurt their standing among African Americans through favoring voter identification and other electoral reforms. They claim that fraud is widespread, though in fact fraud is miniscule. African Americans believe these reforms are little thinly-veiled attempts to suppress the black vote. Republicans still show little real interest in reaching out to African American voters.    

What can we learn from your book to help guide relationships and politics?

Strong African American turnout helped Barack Obama win Virginia in 2008 and 2012. However, voter participation decreases in non-presidential years. It is evident that the Republicans will win few black votes. Terry McAuliffe needs to generate enthusiasm among African Americans; if black turnout is low, he's going to have a hard time winning.

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