Social media has brought the culture wars to a larger audience and demonstrates how conservatives have constructed historical narratives to confirm their worldview. But historians are fighting back, demonstrated by the hashtag #Twitterstorians and the professionals who use social media to deploy their scholarship in the public arena. One particular topic that regularly comes up is the racist history of the Democratic Party. Several conservative commentators point to the Party as the stronghold of the slave south and Jim Crow — something historians readily acknowledge and agree to. But this narrative emerges as an attempt to absolve the current Republican Party of its support for racist policies and pin American racism solely on the Democratic Party. Many of those pushing this agenda, including Trump mouthpiece and self-proclaimed amateur historian Dinesh D’Souza, remain unburdened by the standards of evidence and the critical analysis needed to understand the complicated history of the two political parties and their appeal to Black voters.
The assumption that the political parties have not evolved with every political iteration is reductive at best, and political zealotry at worst. One of the stereotypes at the heart of this debate is the assumption that Black voters are merely political pawns for both parties, ignoring the reality that Black voters remain an influential voting bloc that can and have influenced state and national elections. The Republican Party carried the Black vote for a time, but policy and not loyalty has driven the Black vote. California editor and activist Charlotta Bass’s political evolution highlights the transition of the Black vote away from the GOP. Bass, an influential political activist, ran for Vice-President on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. Her campaign demonstrated some of the shifting loyalties of Black voters and the failure of both political parties to address the needs of the Black community.
Bass moved to California in 1910 and found a job selling subscriptions for The Eagle, an early Black newspaper in Los Angeles. The editor, Joseph Neimore, grew to trust Bass and asked her to take over the paper upon his death. A reluctant Bass would take over the paper, rename it The California Eagle, and transform it into one of the most influential Black newspapers in the United States. Under her leadership, The California Eagle combined political commentary with community social news, keeping Black Los Angelenos abreast of local and national politics. Bass was also a devoted activist, becoming a well-respected community leader of campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan, the Hollywood production of Birth of a Nation, and pushing for hospitals to hire Black nurses. She was an outspoken Republican and member of the local NAACP and the United Negro Improvement Association.
In 1936, Bass voted for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, her first vote for the Democratic Party. Drawn to his expansive New Deal program, she nevertheless still worked as a Republican Party member and her paper endorsed Roosevelt’s opponent Al Landon. But the political tides were turning and Bass’s loyalty to the GOP began to dim. During the 1940 presidential election, Bass served as a Republican California State delegate. She traveled to Chicago for a Party convention and was dismayed to find it was segregated. She knew then that there was “no place” for Black Americans in the Republican Party. In 1945 she ran for city council in Los Angeles as a Democrat. She lost that election, and by 1947, Bass wrote an editorial distancing herself from both parties.
It was anti-communism that pushed her out of the two mainstream political parties. She believed that they were in a contest to prove their anti-communist credentials at the expense of social and economic programs and Black and women’s rights. In 1948, a third-party alternative, the Progressive Party, emerged that drew in other Black activists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. The Progressive Party ran former Roosevelt Vice-President Henry Wallace on a platform that opposed militarism, war, and political contest with the Soviet Union in favor of social justice, economic equality, and peace. Bass was instrumental in getting the Progressive Party on the ballot in California. Though Wallace and the Progressives failed to secure any electoral votes, Bass continued to believe that a vote for the Progressive Party was a political statement that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats could rely on Black or women voters.
In 1952, the Progressive Party ran lawyer Vincent Hallinan for President and Bass agreed to be the Vice-Presidential candidate, making her the first Black woman on a major party ticket. The Party platform was opposed to American Cold War policy that committed the United States to acting as a global police force to contain communism, particularly in former colonies populated by non-white people including Korea and Vietnam. American Cold War policy favored continued military build-up at the expense of social programs and racial justice. More troubling for Bass, both political parties were committed to anti-communism making them indistinguishable from one another and offering no alternative to Black voters.
Bass was concerned that neither Party was interested in racial or economic equality and were committed to maintaining Jim Crow. Dwight Eisenhower, the GOP candidate, was a Texan committed to segregation, while Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, once bragged his grandfather helped to overthrow Reconstruction and thus disenfranchise Black Americans. Both candidates ignored social issues, including police killings, school segregation, and poor economic prospects, while tripping over themselves to prove that they were more anticommunist than the other and advocating shifting American resources to war abroad. She accused both candidates of mud slinging to prove their anti-communism, and argued that neither were “middle of the road” but instead “middle of the gutter.”
Equally troubling for Bass was that the containment policy was imperialism masking itself as democracy. She feared that the US commitment to contain communism was merely an excuse to occupy non-white nations, secure American global supremacy, and ensure capitalist profits. The Korean war in particular worried Bass and other activists because, as she described it, it was a “Dixiecrat” solution, to allow non-white people to kill each other for the “Glory” of the “House of (J.P.) Morgan and the profit of Standard Oil.” Meanwhile, as American resources secured capitalist interests abroad, American workers were left to compete with one another over the scraps. Bass used her newspaper to condemn sending Black soldiers to a war, while their families were left with Jim Crow and poverty at home. She argued that war was a tool to silence dissent at home, while expecting the working poor to die in battle abroad.
She also attacked the notion that the United States was committed to democracy while it sought the arrest and prosecution of communists. This she believed was a tool by both political parties to ensure their anti-communist credentials, to see how many communists they could target, prosecute, and condemn to prison. During her campaign tours, Bass made it clear that the Progressive Party rejected anti-communism, and was outspoken in their commitment to racial, gender, and economic equality. But she knew that their chances of taking the executive office were slim. Bass told her audiences during the campaign that a vote for the Progressive Party would be a protest vote against lynching, segregation, perpetual war, the unlimited power of American capitalist interests, and sexism. She also said that though they were not likely to win the election, they would win by standing up for what was right and by putting the two parties on notice that they had to win over the Black vote.
Bass, like many Black Americans, began her shift away from the Republican Party during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. According to historian Peniel Joseph, Democrats still could not count on Black votes until the ascendancy of conservatism with Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964. The Conservative mantra for small government has often been to favor a reduction of social programs and state’s rights, at the expense of impoverished and disenfranchised Black Americans and growing calls for civil rights. There have been several third-party challenges to the two-party system, including among communists. But Charlotta Bass’s political evolution demonstrates the complexity of the Black vote. She argued that neither political party could nor would speak for Black Americans and that the way toward justice was not with a Republican or a Democrat. The political parties, Bass argued, remained committed to white America and to a system that did not work for the average American. She argued that the two-party system operated on behalf of American capitalism and not the American people. Her skepticism reveals that for many progressive voters, neither the Republican nor Democratic Party were a good choice, but more often a decision between the lesser of two-evils. For Bass, social justice was impossible without economic justice, a struggle that remains for progressive voters today operating within the limits of the two-party system.