This is for John, who wants me to answer a question.
Two questions, actually. John's a reader in Port Orchard, Wash., who sent an e-mail the other day wondering: (1) "... why is it never mentioned that (Martin Luther King) was a Republican?" and, (2) given that Republicans were the party of abolition and that Democrats were the party of arch segregationists like George Wallace and Lester Maddox, "why do African-Americans support the Democrat (sic) Party?"
Frankly, I think John's just having a little fun at my expense, but I'm going to play along, because his questions give me an excuse to address an unspoken disconnect in modern American politics.
First of all, in regard to Dr. King's politics: John should note that this is the same King who declared himself neutral in the 1960 presidential campaign and said, "I feel that someone must remain in the position of nonalignment, so that we can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both - not the servant or master of either."
It's also the same King who said, "I have always argued that we would be further along in the struggle for civil rights if the Republican Party had risen above its hypocrisy and reactionary tendencies."
It is, however, true that blacks tended to vote Republican for much of the last century, the simple reason being that the GOP was "the party of Lincoln." But as Lincoln receded in history, the GOP stranglehold on the black vote was broken by Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and by the GOP's stubborn silence on civil rights.
It's disingenuous to pretend there is some philosophical coherence between the GOP of the 19th century and that of the 21st that should command black loyalty. Where race is concerned, Democrats and the GOP essentially exchanged ideologies in those years, the conservative Democrats becoming more moderate, the moderate GOP becoming more conservative. Black voters changed their loyalties accordingly.
And here's the disconnect: Large minorities of black voters actually side with conservatives on litmus test issues like abortion and the death penalty. So you'd think the GOP, the conservative party, would be more competitive among blacks.
To understand why it is not, rephrase John's question a tad more honestly. Make it: Why do blacks not support conservatism? Then the answer becomes simple: At no point in history when black folks were beset, bedraggled and fighting for their very existence have conservatives - whether you're talking Democrats of the 19th and early 20th centuries or Republicans now - been caught taking our side. From the abolition of slavery through Jim Crow through anti-lynching legislation through integration, through voting rights through civil rights through affirmative action, conservatives have always stood in opposition.
And no, it is not as if liberals have always been paragons of racial enlightenment. When President Bush decries "the soft bigotry of low expectations" he speaks insight and truth.
But given the choice between the soft bigotry of low expectations and the hard bigotry of a cross burning on the lawn and silence in response, is it any wonder black voters choose the first?
I believe no ideology has a monopoly on truth. And that, to paraphrase Britain's Viscount Palmerston, black voters - like any other - ought have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. But where the permanent interest of race is concerned, conservatives are damned by their own history.
Now John wants to know why blacks have never supported them. Here's a better question: Why haven't they ever supported us?