Dennis Persica: When it comes to civil rights, neither Democrats nor Republicans have proved pure _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- People line the streets for the funeral of the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, in this 1963 photograph, a part of 'Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Right Movement,' a photography exhibit at the West Baton Rouge Museum.

Here are some things people told me last week:

American troops committed genocide against Native Americans who were in the way of a transcontinental railroad.

Slavery was present at the very birth of this nation, practiced in all 13 colonies.

People in the North felt black people were beneath them, and black inferiority was taught in science and history books across the nation. Not just in the South but across America, black people were oppressed until the civil rights movement.

You might wonder if these are the rants of left-wing whiners, part of what Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy adviser and U.N. ambassador, called the “blame-America- first crowd.”

It’s a good bet, however, that most of those saying these things don’t identify themselves as liberals. These ideas came from Internet commenters disagreeing with my column last week about the New Orleans monuments to Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis.

Usually, conservatives cringe at depictions of American history that focus too much on the negative. Last year, for example, they complained that high school Advanced Placement courses in U.S. history were not patriotic enough.

They managed to get some changes in the course, including removing a definition of the concept of Manifest Destiny that said it “was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”

But the opinions of the commenters last week seem to hew closely to the idea that racism was endemic to the United States from its very beginning.

I’m sure there are a lot of civil rights leaders who would welcome those who’ve come to that conclusion, but they might wonder why it took them so long to get there.

There are two reasons the people who commented last week might want to be so brutally honest about American history.

One is that by showing that racism was widespread, it mitigates the stain of slavery on the Confederacy. The other is that it’s a good way to tar Democrats by pointing out that they were responsible for the Klan, Jim Crow and Bull Connor.

There is no doubt that Democrats bear responsibility for the fate that befell black people once Reconstruction troops were gone. For that, they deserve the harsh judgment of history.

But Southern Republicans didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory during much of the 20th century, either. The party of abolition didn’t transform itself into the party of civil rights.

To his credit, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was in office when the first civil rights act since the 1800s was adopted. He also sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a desegregation order. But by 1964, when a much stronger civil rights bill passed, the handful of Southern Republicans in Congress then all voted against it, just like the majority of Southern Democrats.

One notable exception to that record was the work of 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Minor Wisdom and two other Eisenhower appointees, Elbert Tuttle and John Brown. They joined with a Democratic appointee, Richard Rives, to overturn segregation laws across the South.

But the party was moving in the opposite direction. In 1964, Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act in the Senate that same year, led a Republican presidential ticket that won only five Southern states and Arizona.

In 1968, Richard Nixon adopted his “Southern strategy,” designed to appeal to disaffected white voters.

For a century after the end of Reconstruction, black people in the South couldn’t really turn to either major party for help. That’s another sad, brutal truth of American history.

Dennis Persica’s email is dpersica@the advocate.com.