- The Door of Hope: Republican Presidents and the First Southern Strategy, 1877-1933 by Edward O. Frantz
A volume in the series “New Perspectives on the History of the South” edited by John David Smith, this book provides a new perspective on the well-worn topic of race-based politics in the Solid South during the Jim Crow era. The author, Edward O. Frantz of the University of Indianapolis, tries to explain how the party of Lincoln and the liberal North became the party of Reagan and the conservative South, while the party of the slave-holding Confederacy became the party of African Americans. To do this, he focuses on the mostly forgotten or ignored southern speaking tours that Republican presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Herbert Hoover made between Reconstruction and the New Deal. He omits any discussion of Republican presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur in the 1880s and Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s, as well as Democrats Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, who either did not make southern speaking tours or did not fit into the narrow context that he chose for this study.
Frantz shows that, to greater or lesser degrees, when these GOP presidents toured the South, they excused or glorified ex-Confederates, were sympathetic to the Lost Cause, and took the black vote for granted. Although they all made overtures toward racial fairness, each one successively inched ever further away from supporting the 14th and 15th Amendments and advised blacks instead to improve their own condition through self-help as Booker T. Washington famously advocated. As one southern state after another disfranchised blacks in and after the 1890s, however, such paternalistic advice rang increasingly hollow with African Americans. Hoping to get white southerners in the door of the GOP, these presidents were actually shutting the door of hope in the face of black southerners. By 1932, the GOP had veered so far from its Lincolnian origins that black voters no longer saw any future for themselves in the party, which opened a door of hope for the Democrats to win them over. Meanwhile, Hoover had proven that white southerners would indeed vote Republican “given the right set of circumstances” (244). Had the Great Depression not happened on Hoover’s watch, the GOP might have become the party of white southerners long before it actually did in 1980. There is little novelty in this thesis, but using presidential tours as evidence to support it is new and valuable.
If the author had ended the book where his evidence stops, the final product would demonstrate sound scholarship. Instead, he goes further, [End Page 191] suggesting (not stating outright) that the GOP continued regressing on racial issues through the presidencies of Eisenhower and Nixon-Ford, until, by the time Reagan was elected, the regression was complete; the party had gone from being merely disinterested in the wants and needs of African Americans in 1932 to altogether opposed to black civil rights and racial equality in 1980. It thus had become the party of “white resentment” (2), by which he apparently means the party of racists. For supposed proof, he ties Reagan’s 1980 campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which the “nearly lily-white crowd” (1) cheered wildly, to the notorious Freedom Summer murders that had occurred there sixteen years earlier, implying that the same southern whites who approved of if not participated in Klan violence in the 1960s now voted Republican in the 1980s. He later states as fact his unsubstantiated and debatable opinion that Reagan’s policies “were decidedly at odds with the legacy of liberation” (244) of African Americans from slavery.
In documenting how the GOP regressed from its idealistic egalitarianism in Reconstruction to a begrudging acceptance of white supremacy in the early twentieth century, Frantz safely reiterates the orthodox interpretation of this subject. Even so, pointing out the Republicans...