Historians of the Republican Party and the conservative movement since 1945 have amassed a large body of scholarship over the past decade. In providing one of the most thorough works on the intersection of civil rights, racial politics, and the Grand Old Party in post–World War II America, Timothy Thurber’s Republicans and Race is a vital addition to its field.
Since the book is broad in scope, yet rich in detail, it would be impossible to cover all of Thurber’s arguments in a single review. Among his most important contributions is an in-depth focus on the role of congressional Republicans in shaping the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps more than any single source, Thurber convincingly makes the case that all of the major civil rights bills of this era “bore a heavy Republican imprint” (p. 107). Just as the civil rights acts were instrumental in reshaping the Jim Crow South, so too, according to Thurber, did they transform the Republican identity. Since the 1960s, the GOP has used the very civil rights legislation it supported, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to support a color-blind vision of society. This vision provided the justification for Republican opposition to other objectives of the civil rights movement, particularly in the fields of employment and education.
Thurber is careful, however, to acknowledge the complex assortment of ideologies that made up the Republican Party from the 1940s to the 1970s. Moderate and liberal Republicans—including John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton of Kentucky—not only shaped the nation’s civil rights legislative agenda, but also urged their party to reject far-right conservatism and make sincere efforts to attract [End Page 143] black voters. Even after the conservative takeover of the party that culminated in the nomination of Barry Goldwater, moderates continued to play key roles in shaping their party well into the late 1960s and 1970s. This nuanced analysis is further extended to the administration of Richard Nixon. Although Thurber does not shy away from Nixon’s vulgar descriptions of minorities in private conversations and Machiavellian courtship of the “Silent Majority,” he also highlights how Nixon’s “core principles” shaped his domestic policy. It was Nixon, after all, who enshrined affirmative action within the federal infrastructure.
Although Republicans and Race succeeds in providing fresh, nuanced analysis, it does have limitations. As pure, old-fashioned political history, Thurber brings the backroom wheeling-and-dealing of Congress to life. However, the underlying social forces that lie behind the political maneuverings are underanalyzed. Even more glaring is Thurber’s treatment of African American Republicans—a constituency that one would assume might play an important role in a work dealing with race and the Republican Party. When addressed, which is surprisingly sporadic, black Republicans are typically treated as foils to white politicians. Most African American Republicans described in the book are fierce advocates of civil rights and brutal critics of their party. There is no attempt by Thurber, however, to provide a substantive explanation of why black Republicans stayed with the party in spite of their disapproval. Regardless of these limitations, for a sweeping survey of how Republicans have addressed race since 1945, there are few works that rival Thurber’s in terms of detailed, yet sweeping, political history. That the work is extremely well written, and a genuinely engaging read, is only an additional incentive to read what is already an invaluable contribution reshaping our understanding of post–World War II politics. [End Page 144]
JOSHUA D. FARRINGTON’s current research focuses on the relationship between African American voters and Republican politicians during the mid-twentieth century. His manuscript is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press.