At some point, nearly everyone who calls himself a conservative has found it necessary to distinguish himself from the Republican party. Typically, this happens in arguments with Democrats about spending or the expansion of the entitlement state: “They lost their way; they became just like you!”

Except on the matter of race.

When it comes to race, it’s apparently convenient to fall back on one’s membership in the party of Lincoln and — wait for it — Martin Luther King Jr. himself.

Mesut Dogan /

As this 2006 Human Events piece by National Black Republican Association Chairman Frances Rice asserts:

It should come as no surprise that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican. In that era, almost all black Americans were Republicans. Why? From its founding in 1854 as the anti-slavery party until today, the Republican Party has championed freedom and civil rights for blacks. And as one pundit so succinctly stated, the Democrat Party is as it always has been, the party of the four S’s: slavery, secession, segregation and now socialism.

It was the Democrats who fought to keep blacks in slavery and passed the discriminatory Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan to lynch and terrorize blacks. The Democrats fought to prevent the passage of every civil rights law beginning with the civil rights laws of the 1860s, and continuing with the civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s.

Kevin D. Williamson has a more sophisticated and thoroughly researched version of this argument in the current issue of National Review. It’s worth reading in full — in particular for its pushback against the familiar retort that Republicans and Democrats “switched places” in the all-important South:

If the parties had in some meaningful way flipped on civil rights, one would expect that to show up in the electoral results in the years following the Democrats’ 1964 about-face on the issue. Nothing of the sort happened: Of the 21 Democratic senators who opposed the 1964 act, only one would ever change parties. Nor did the segregationist constituencies that elected these Democrats throw them out in favor of Republicans: The remaining 20 continued to be elected as Democrats or were replaced by Democrats. It was, on average, nearly a quarter of a century before those seats went Republican. If southern rednecks ditched the Democrats because of a civil-rights law passed in 1964, it is strange that they waited until the late 1980s and early 1990s to do so. They say things move slower in the South — but not that slow.

But, ultimately, I’m not sure how helpful it is to look at race relations through a partisan lens. Is it truly helpful to note that Sen. John Calhoun — the incendiary defender of states’ rights enshrined in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind — was a Democrat? And if we’re kicking Calhoun out of the pantheon (if only on the race question) does that mean liberal New Jersey Sen. Jacob Javits gets to come in? Williamson, too, cites Richard Nixon, recalling how he “helped shepherd the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress.” And how’s his reputation among mainstream conservatives these days? Is it not in the same dustbin occupied by the defunct Northeastern moderate wing?

Williamson is on firm ground when he cites other factors to explain Republican dominance in Dixie: among them the rise of a new suburban class in the South; the capture by the McGovernite left of the Democratic Party. He could have mentioned the influence of conservative protestantism as well.

But there’s no getting around the fact that the philosophical underpinnings of Southern politics centered on an agrarian republican worldview that sought to preserve a certain way of life and ward off federal encroachment. It was, in a word, conservative. Despite its association with slavery, there is much to recommend about this worldview. If you will, one can throw out the bathwater and still keep Wendell Berry’s baby.

But it’s too clever by half to try to pin the parts of this worldview that offend our sensibilities onto the contemporary Democratic party.