The modern GOP was created in 1965 with a stroke of Lyndon Johnson's pen.
If that is an exaggeration, it is not much of one. When Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he made a prediction: In committing the unpardonable sin of guaranteeing the ballot to all citizens regardless of race, he said, he would cause his party to lose the South "for a generation."
And indeed Southern Democrats, who for a century had bombed schools, lynched innocents, perverted justice and terrorized millions in the name of intolerance, responded by leaving their ancestral party in droves. They formed the base of a new GOP, a reality acknowledged by Ronald Reagan when he opened his 1980 campaign at a segregationist fair in a town where three civil rights workers were infamously martyred, by declaring, "I believe in state's rights."
In embracing its new southern base, the Republican Party became the Repugnant Party on matters of race, a distinction it has done little to shed. So some of us were disappointed but not surprised last week when Sherri Goforth, an aide to Tennessee state Sen. Diane Black, came under fire for an e-mail she sent out. It depicted the 44 U.S. presidents, showing the first 43 in dignified, statesmanlike poses. By contrast, the 44th, the first African-American, is seen as a pair of cartoon spook eyes against a black backdrop. Goforth's explanation: the e-mail, which went to GOP staffers, was sent "to the wrong list of people."
You may wish to let that one marinate for a moment.
And please, don't bother reminding me of Democrat Robert Byrd's onetime membership in the Ku Klux Klan; I make no argument that the Democrats are untainted by bigotry. Rather, my argument is that the GOP is consumed by it, riddled with it, that it has shown, sown, shaped and been shaped by it, to an abhorrent degree.
You think that's unfair? Well, after Goforth's e-mail, after "Barack the Magic Negro," and John McCain's campaign worker blaming a fictional black man for a fictional mugging, and a party official in Texas renaming the executive mansion "the black house," and an official in Virginia claiming Obama's presidency would see free drugs and "mandatory black liberation theology," and a Republican activist in South Carolina calling an escaped ape one of Michelle Obama's "ancestors," it seems wholly fair to me. Indeed, overdue.
And keep in mind: all that is just from the last year or so. I could draw up a much longer list but space is limited and there is a final point to make.
Which is that, yes, I am cognizant of the danger of painting with too broad a brush and no, I am not saying membership in the GOP is synonymous with membership in the KKK. I know there are Republicans of racial enlightenment and common decency. Indeed, I am counting on it, counting on them to search conscience and demand their party find ways of winning elections that do not depend on lazy appeals to the basest emotions of the hateful and the unreconstructed.
Do it because it's the right thing. And do it because it is in the party's long-term interest. As a 2008 Gallup poll indicates, black people are "more" religious than Republicans as a whole and just as conservative on some key moral issues. Yet only 5 percent identify with the party of religion and conservatism. The GOP's ongoing inability to win over such a natural constituency speaks volumes.
I keep waiting for somebody to do something about it. I mean, I can hear Republicans of racial enlightenment and common decency yelling at me from here. They want me to know there is nothing honorable, much less inherently Republican, in the hatred expressed by these weasels in elephant's clothes. In response, I would give them this advice:
Don't tell me. Tell them.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.