A CPAC panel on minority outreach erupted into national news last week after participants demanded justice for “disenfranchised” whites and expressed sympathy for slaveholders. It’s a frustrating development for the event’s moderator, K. Carl Smith, who said he’s never seen anything like what happened Friday at his previous lectures.
“I read the summation of what happened in Huffington Post and those places,” he said. “If I had not been there I would have been infuriated, too, because they’re not telling the entire story of what happened.”
Smith, 55, was brought in by the Tea Party Patriots to deliver a talk entitled “Trump The Race Card: Are You Sick And Tired Of Being Called A Racist When You Know You’re Not One?” He travels the country selling books and lecturing audiences on how to turn black voters into “Frederick Douglass Republicans™.”
He accurately noted that Scott Terry, the person who asked Smith why Frederick Douglass forgave his former master for “giving him shelter and food,” was greeted with a shocked response from many attendees — not applause or cheers. But Terry and his companion, Matthew Heimbach, both of whom are associated with white nationalist movements, weren’t removed either. And several attendees expressed sympathy with their grievances about oppression against whites if not their take on slavery.
“I think if it lasted a little longer they would have been kicked out, but it didn’t last much longer after that,” he said. “I couldn’t see the back of [Heimbach’s] shirt, which had a Confederate flag. If that’s the case we need to be watchful of that kind of stuff.”
Despite Smith’s apparent shock at the pair’s take on the Old South, he released a statement after the event assuring the press that he and Terry “left as friends” after he sold him a copy of his book, “Frederick Douglass Republicans.” According to Smith, their conversation began when he made note of Terry’s approving reference at the panel to a famous quote by Booker T. Washington on segregation from 1895: “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
“We told him Washington was heavily influenced by Douglass — in fact he wrote a biography on Douglass,” Smith said. “He said I didn’t know that. We elaborated more and Terry said ‘I can buy into that, I like that.’ Well he, in turn, buys my book.”
Smith added he had never seen a Confederate flag at a tea party event and felt reporters had conspired to put the worst face on the event.
“After the whole thing transpired I talked to a couple of those left wing reporters and I asked them, ‘OK, putting the one incident aside, what do you think about the message we’re sharing?’” he said. “They’d only talk off record: ‘I can’t report what you talked about, it’s too positive. I was sent to write a negative story.’ You got to be kidding me.”
He added: “It reminds me of the Malcolm X quote: ‘The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent.’”
So what is Smith’s actual case to tea party activists? It mostly centers around an extremely generous interpretation of the last 200 years of partisan politics.
According to Smith, while he grew up as a churchgoing conservative in Alabama and, as a member of the Army, a strong believer in national security, he voted Democrat until he was 40 because he believed Republicans were racist.
“Then I started reading about Douglass and my curiosity was ‘Why was he a Republican when Republicans are racist?’” he said. “On my own, I read his writing and saw his essays going back — I said ‘Wait a minute this was not what I was told to believe!”
Smith’s lectures focus almost entirely on how, during the Civil War and through the Jim Crow era, Democrats were the Southern party of white supremacy while Republicans, especially Abraham Lincoln, fought for progress instead. On Friday, Smith derided modern Democrats as the historical descendants of the KKK. Remarks like those prompted shocked pushback from a progressive black radio host in attendance, Kim Brown (much to Smith’s annoyance), who after several brief interjections was shouted down by the audience while trying to ask them whether it’s important to condemn racism within their party.
Needless to say, the obvious question this raises is the one Brown was getting at: If Republicans are the party of Lincoln, then why did black voters overwhelmingly abandon them over the last 50 years? And does it have anything to do with the reasons white southerners fled the Democratic Party in droves during the same period? In other words, if the Confederacy’s spiritual descendants are Democrats, then why are their biological descendants voting Republican?
There’s not really a lot of mystery here for historians: Democrats, led by Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, championed civil rights legislation and integration, leaving an opening for the GOP, led by President Richard Nixon, to adopt a race-baiting strategy that drew in disaffected segregationists. This is an uncontroversial enough take on events that the chairman of the RNC himself apologized on behalf of his party for Nixon’s “Southern strategy” at a 2005 speech to the NAACP.
Smith backs off a little bit when asked how he handles this common complaint. The real lesson is — to quote Some Like It Hot — nobody’s perfect.
“When you break the history down of Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy,’ the point is there is no political party that’s perfect,” he said. “Back in 1870 when they ended Reconstruction, the Republicans joined forces with the Democrats and that was wrong. And, of course, Democrats have a longer history of being anti-black than the GOP. So there’s no perfect political party even today.”
By contrast, “what [Democrats are] saying is all the racism that exists in politics is now in the Republican Party. That doesn’t even make sense.”
He added: “There’s racism on my 6-year-old grandson’s soccer team.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.