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Kemp: A Rare Advocate For The District

Jack Kemp's mind was naturally focused on football as he led the Buffalo Bills to the American Football League championship in 1964, but he was paying enough attention to politics to realize that his fellow Republicans were making a mistake that would haunt them for decades to come:

By opposing the Civil Rights Act that year, Republicans sent a message that rang loud and clear among black Americans. That, Kemp would argue for decades to follow, was the moment when his party lost the bulk of its black support, and the legacy of that choice remains the party's most serious obstacle as it has steadily lost ground in recent years.

[UPDATE, 1:20 PM: As several readers correctly note below, Kemp got his history wrong: Republicans actually voted for the Civil Rights Act, overwhelmingly--a result of a bipartisan alliance between President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) It was southern Democrats who led the opposition to the bill, and an alliance of pro-civil rights Democrats and Republicans who pushed it through. What Kemp was actually talking about was probably the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign that year, in which the GOP candidate made his opposition to the Civil Rights Act a centerpiece of his doomed campaign.]

Kemp, who died last night at his home in Bethesda, remained a Republican all his life, and espoused a fairly standard conservative line on most issues. But on race, urban issues and the abiding injustice of leaving residents of Washington as the nation's only people left disenfranchised because of where they live, Kemp stood out and stood up against his party's orthodoxy.

Kemp consistently chastised fellow Republicans as they joined many Democrats in various schemes to block Washingtonians from attaining the full voting rights that all other Americans take for granted.

In the last few years, as Kemp and fellow Republican Tom Davis, the recently-retired congressman from Fairfax County, led the way toward a compromise that would have granted a House seat to the District, the former football star turned politician frequently called upon GOP members of Congress to do the right thing and embrace voting rights.

"Members say, 'Well, black people in L.A. don't care about this,' " Kemp once told me, referring to his conversations with lawmakers. "Let me tell you, African Americans know that Washington, D.C., is a majority-black city with an African American mayor. This is one of the last chances the Republicans have to be a truly national party."

"Young men and women are being sent from D.C. to Baghdad," Kemp said several years into the Iraq war. "The hypocrisy is painful. It's just unbelievable how Republicans could turn away from American citizens who want to vote. I don't see how they can sleep at night."

Kemp was always available to talk up D.C. voting rights, whether in the media, to local groups, or around the country.

He sometimes attributed his awakening on the subject to his years as a sports star, living and playing with blacks and learning about some of the subtle pains that struck his friends even when no bald-faced discrimination was evident.

Kemp's solutions to problems of race, class and the urban-suburban divide were often not those of liberals more commonly associated with such issues. But some of the ideas he advocated most energetically made their way into everyday practice, at least in modified form: Enterprise zones and tax incentives for minority-owned businesses didn't transform American cities, but they did help along the growth of a substantial black middle class in some parts of the country.

In Washington, the Republican party has essentially vanished from District politics--the two longtime GOP members of the D.C. Council, Carol Schwartz and David Catania, have been defeated and left the party, respectively. And Kemp never managed to persuade more than a couple of dozen congressmen in his party to support D.C. voting rights. But Kemp and Davis did leave behind a small but principle core of supporters in the House to carry on their fight, a struggle they saw as standing up not only for District residents who have no voice in the making of their nation's laws, but also for the idea that their party cannot survive as a representative of white Americans alone.

By Marc Fisher |  May 3, 2009; 8:31 AM ET  | Category:  Politics , The District , Voting rights
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"By opposing the Civil Rights Act that year, Republicans sent a message that rang loud and clear among black Americans." Your statement above is either a white lie or it's made due to ignorance. Why don't you also state the fact that the father (then senator from TN) of Al Gore Jr (father of global warming and internet) did fillubuster that legislation with the support of Dems? Also if it wasn't for the support of the Republicans, Civil Rights Act would not be law now. The Blacks joined the Dems to get the "free stuff" from "all" the tax payers, forgetting who was with them on life's most important matters(freedom)such as ending slavery and enactment of Civil Rights. The Dems enjoy rewarding irresponsiblity (current circus in the Fed. is an example) on the backs of the future generations more than GOP. GOP did abandon its principles at times and Dems are horrible in their fiscal policies.
What's most interesting thing here is liberal clans in the likes of the Kennedys set up trust and offshore accounts to avoid taxes and have poorer poeple pay their share. Come on, try not to be too partisan in the "news reporting". Don't let your party spirit color the media unless you disclose it upfront.

Posted by: saps1000 | May 3, 2009 11:55 AM

Sir, you are either too young to remember the voting on Title 7 (Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ignorant or a LIAR. The REPUBLICANS were INSTRUMENTAL in PASSING Title 7. It was the DEMOCRATS that fought it TOOTH AND NAIL, especially the SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS. I can still remember asking my father, and teachers "how can any of the senators be opposed to civil rights?" It is a shame that many people are too young to remember the 60's and believe the media's lies. This was a formative part of my life, and caused me, as a child, to decide to never join that party. I vote Democrat, if I think that person is the better candidate, but I would NEVER register as one, or be a member of that party. All those stories about those horrible, right wing Republicans? Well, folks the fact is, totalitariansim comes from the LEFT, not the right. Take a moment if you live in a state like mine (California), to think about, who wrote all those laws, that tell us, where we can smoke, who we can marry, what should and shold not eat, right down to what kind of damn LIGHT BULBS WE SHOULD BUY. That's right, the Democrats. Both parties have their faults, but you know what, there are plenty of black republicans. You media just pretend like there aren't. You should be ashamed. Bet you don't have the stones to post this either.

Posted by: southbaybruce | May 3, 2009 12:31 PM

Vote totals for the Civil Rights Act
Totals are in "Yea-Nay" format:

Original House version:290-130(69%-31%)
The Senate version: 73-27 (73%-27%)
The Senate version, as voted on by the House: 289-126 (70%-30%)

By party
The original House version:

Democratic Party: 152-96 (61%-39%)
Republican Party: 138-34 (80%-20%)
The Senate version:

Democratic Party: 46-21 (69%-31%)
Republican Party: 27-6 (82%-18%)

The Senate version, voted on by the House:

Democratic Party: 153-91 (63%-37%)
Republican Party: 136-35 (80%-21%)

^ a b c King, Desmond (1995). Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government. p. 311.

But why let facts get in the way?

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | May 3, 2009 12:42 PM

Thanks for the update.

Did you say 'Kemp got his history wrong' or was it Mr. Fisher who got his history wrong? Just wondering...

Posted by: saps1000 | May 3, 2009 9:22 PM

Kemp got his history wrong? Poor guy is dead and can't defend himself anymore. Marc - don't you do any fact checking at all before writing? Are you paid or do is this gig pro-bono?

Posted by: jamaljk85 | May 3, 2009 10:26 PM

Yes, it is true that the Republican party supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 while the Southern Democrats and Dixicrats voted against it. But shortly thereafter many of those same Democrats (Thurmond, Helms...) left the Democratic party and moved on over to GOP. When these former Democrats moved over to the Republican party they took their segregationist ideology with them and the GOP underwent a pardigm shift in ideology such that today's GOP consists of many people who were indeed AGAINST the CRA of '64 even though they would have been considered Democrats decades ago.

Posted by: seriously4 | May 4, 2009 2:14 PM

Pres. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act KNOWING that he had lost the South to the Democratic party for a generation. Where are those Dems now? Did a meteor hit the South and kill them off? No, seriously4 has is right. They're now called Republicans.

Posted by: IrishRose | May 4, 2009 6:41 PM

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