Last week, while commenting on a bill to designate a river "wild and scenic," Representative Foxx waded into historical waters beyond her depth. While trying to make a valid historical point that Republicans deserve credit for beginning some good environmental programs (and she is right, if you go back 40 years to the Nixon administration), Foxx made one of the most ridiculous comments of her political career:
FOXX: ...and actually the GOP has been the leader in starting good environmental programs in this, in this country, uh, just as we were the people who passed the Civil Right bills back in the '60s, without very much help from our colleagues across the aisle. They love to engage in revisionist history.
Revisionist history? No serious scholar would agree with Foxx's statement. President Kennedy, who proposed the first significant civil rights act, and President Johnson, who passed both that act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, were Democrats. Almost all the African-Americans who took the beatings in Birmingham and Selma either were Democrats or became Democrats soon thereafter. Here in North Carolina, and across the country, many white Democrats who opposed civil rights legislation left the party and joined the new Republican coalition that increasingly belittled the African American struggle for freedom. Jesse Helms railed against these courageous people in his editorials on WRAL (Foxx also misspoke while trying to defend Helms a few minutes later).
Representative Foxx embarrassed herself by trying to recast history and wield it as a political weapon. Pundits and politicians on cable news and liberal blogs have rightfully attacked her for her silly blunder.
But there is more to this story than most Democrats would like to admit. Liberals would do well to give the topic of politics and civil rights more careful attention. There is a hidden truth behind the headlines.
For several years now some shrewd Republican leaders have played the civil rights history card during debates about the GOP's record on race. Unlike Foxx's heavy handed oversimplification, they correctly point out that without Republican support, led by Republican Senator Everett Dirksen from Illinois, civil rights bills would never have become law. For instance, look carefully at the following numbers about the actual voting rights bill that passed both chambers in 1965 before the final conference bill:
• Democrats: 47-17 (73%-27%)
• Republicans: 30-2 (94%-6%)
• Democrats: 221-61 (78%-22%)
• Republicans: 112-24 (82%-18%)
Note that while there were more actual Democratic votes, the percentage of support was higher among Republicans. Why? The reason is because Southern Democrats -- including North Carolina Senators Ervin and Jordan -- opposed civil rights. Do these numbers mean that Republicans were more supportive of civil rights than Democrats? Of course they don't. A careful reading of the history of civil rights legislation shows that a COALITION of Democrats and Republicans made these important gains in racial justice possible.
So Democrats, be warned. Just as Foxx inaccurately claimed that it was Republicans "who passed the Civil Right bills back in the '60's without very much help from our colleagues across the aisle," it would be wrong for Democrats to oversimplify in the other direction and claim that they alone were the party of civil rights.
History is messier than many politicians would like it to be.
The real irony here is that Foxx has accidentally endorsed a few things she is adamantly against -- like bipartisanship and moderation. When it really mattered, when politicians on both sides of the aisle came face to face with a real turning point in American history, moderate Republicans followed the brave leadership of Senator Dirksen and did the right thing for the country.
Maybe Virginia Foxx should re-read her history and follow her Republican forbearers' example.
Karl Campbell is an associate professor of history at ASU and is the author of "Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers."