1908 black political activism signals 2008 Obama nomination

A hundred years ago, Denver hosted its first Democratic National Convention, an event that put the city on the national map. But unbeknownst to many convention-goers at the time — and more than likely to attendees at the upcoming DNC — Denver was also at the center of a heated debate among the nation’s black political activists, a debate that helped launch the eventual migration of African-American voters from their traditional home in the Republican party to the Democratic party.

That long-forgtten parley pitted traditional black Republicans, still loyal to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, against a group of black Democrats who were tired of the Republicans’ empty promises of equal rights. It was the first time that prominent blacks first considered voting Democratic. A hundred years later, as an overhwhelming majority of African-American voters rally to the candidacy of presumptive nominee Barack Obama, the story of how African-Americans first considered voting Democrat takes on new historical significance.

In 1908, the Republican Party — the party of Lincoln — was still considered the agent of black liberation. The Civil War had ended less than half a century before, and the Republican Party — unlike the Democratic party — included a small nod to black rights in its 1908 platform. Even so, black discontent with the Republican Party was escalating, in part because of events like one in Brownsville, Texas, two years earlier. A skirmish in the town left a white bartender dead and a policeman wounded, and white townspeople blamed black infantryman stationed nearby for the incident. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt discharged nearly 170 infantrymen on little evidence. William Howard Taft — the Republican presidential candidate in 1908 — served as Roosevelt’s secretary of war at the time of the Brownsville affair and was seen as responsible for the discharges.

"There was this idea that blacks couldn’t rely on the Republican Party, only on themselves to execute reform," says historian Bill Convery of the Colorado Historical Society, "It made African-Americans feel like they’d been left holding the bag."

Disgusted with the Republican Party’s reticence, many American blacks began to consider the Democratic Party, which had been the party of the slave owners before the Civil War. William Jennings Bryan, the 1908 Democratic presidential candidate, professed a serious, if broadly defined, dedication to equality. Some blacks listened to his populist appeal while others, skeptical, maintained their commitment to the Republicans. Bryan, for his part, was no promoter of black rights; the congressman counted some Ku Klux Klan members as his closest allies in Washington.

Joseph Henry Peter Westbrook, a Denver physician who joined the Ku Klux Klan in order to spy on the group, advocated black support for Democrats. (Photo courtesy of The Colorado Historical Society)

Joseph Henry Peter Westbrook,

a Denver physician who joined

the Ku Klux Klan in order to

spy on the group, advocated

black support for Democrats.

(Photo courtesy of Black

American West Museum)

Because Denver had secured the 1908 Democratic National Convention, the city served as ground zero for the debate among black political activists. In Denver’s thriving Five Points neighborhood, several leaders weighed in with their support of Bryan. One was Dr. Joseph Henry Peter Westbrook, a physician and a drugstore owner, who had joined the Ku Klux Klan in order to spy on its members. He spoke at a community meeting on behalf of Bryan.

Another was Oliver Toussaint Jackson, a caterer and a newspaper man who would later go on to found Colorado’s black agricultural settlement of Dearfield, and who endured criticism for his support of the Democrat.

Denver also served as the headquarters for The National Negro Anti-Taft League, which sought to prevent Taft’s election as it pleaded with Bryan to include blacks in his platform.

The debate spilled onto the pages of the city’s two black newspapers, The Denver Statesman (later known — and referred to from here on for clarity purposes — as The Denver Star) and The Colorado Statesman. The Denver Star was the more conservative — and hence, Republican — of the two, printing dismayed editorials about black support of the Democrats. The Colorado Statesman, on the other hand, entreated its readers to consider supporting Bryan.

A July 18, 1908 editorial in the Statesman called "SIGNS OF REDEMPTION" by Joseph D.D. Rivers, promoted Bryan. While harboring no illusions that the party was sympathetic to blacks, Rivers argued that Bryan’s message served to protect blacks.

"It is, of course, useless to expect that the Democratic party, as a whole, will so commit itself as to profess a sincere and wholesome regard for the welfare of the Negro citizen," the editors declared, "but the fact that the progressive element in the party has reached the point where it does not hesitate to make a general and impartial declaration upon the equal rights of all citizens of the United States, ‘at home or abroad,’ to enjoy the equal protection of law, must be regarded as a long step toward the elimination of racial controversies in politics when all parties interested are citizens of the United States."

A key issue was whether, Bryan would include an equal rights plank in the party platform. In the end, he ignored the pleas of black Americans and refused. Black Democrats were stymied.

On October 17, 1908, the Denver Star published an entitled "The Spider and the Fly," in which author J.W. Sanders wrote, "I take the unqualified position that no negro can vote the Democratic ticket National platform and at the same time increase his self-respect thereby, nor can he win that respect of the other race."

And after a heated editorial war, both the Star and the Statesman endorsed Taft, the Republican.

Historian Convery says that the 1908 election represents a missed opportunity on the part of the Democrats; some blacks were ready to support the party, but the party could not step up. It would take another 60 years for blacks to turn decisively in favor of Democrats like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson who promised to support civil rights.

"Democrats have finally shown the courage that escaped them when Bryan was the nominee in 1908," says Convery. "It turned out that Joseph D.D. Rivers was right. The Democratic Party would have to embrace the implications of its own rhetoric."

Convery says that Denver’s black community in 1908 would have been floored by Obama’s candidacy.

"They would have been thrilled. This is way beyond what they had hoped to achieve. They wanted a candidate to make sure that 80 black men each year wouldn’t be lynched. They didn’t even get that," he says, noting that in 1908, 89 blacks were lynched nationwide.

"It’s historic," he says of the fact that the Denver debate of 1908 has culminated in Obama’s imminent victory a century later. "It’s breathtakingly historic."