'Frederick Douglass' Republicans Woo Black Voters

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Two years ago, Barack Obama made history by becoming the nation's first African-American president.

Around that same time, black conservatives started their own movement shaped by the ideals of another political icon -- Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, who was born a slave, escaped his chains to become an abolitionist, an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, and the father of America's civil rights movement.

A Douglass Republican

Today, he's inspiring a new movement among conservative African Americans.

"I'm not a black conservative. I am a Frederick Douglass Republican," Ret. U.S. Army officer Keith Carl Smith said.

Smith described himself as a political agitator. He said he knew three things about himself his entire life -- he was black, a Christian, and a Democrat. However, one night he decided to change the way he voted.

"God spoke to me that night and said, 'Keith, I want a public relationship with you, not a private affair,'" Smith told CBN News. "I said, 'Lord, what do you mean?'"

"He said, 'I'm not pleased with the way you're voting. The way you're voting is inconsistent with your Christian worship,'" he said.

Smith started identifying himself as a Frederick Douglass Republican and started a movement in his home state of Alabama. He believes in individual responsibility, limited government, respects life and the U.S. Constitution.

"The federal government today is the modern day slave master because it is so large and powerful it is the most immediate threat to our God-given rights," he explained.

Conservative = Racist?

In some black communities, Smith said the word "conservative" or "Republican" is synonymous with "racist." But if you invoke the name of a well-respected black family member like Frederick Douglass, he explained that you can trump the race card.

"It takes race off the table and you can get to the issues. That's what our enemies and our opponents don't want. They don't want us to get to the issues because conservatives will win the argument of ideas. We have the best ideas," he said.

Smith added that once he can break through that race barrier, many African Americans readily agree with him. And that's a key point. Black voters tend to be more conservative than whites when it comes to social issues.

But Smith's method isn't just for blacks. Debbie Gunnoe heard Smith speak and now considers herself a Frederick Douglass Republican, too.

"I can approach people and talk about those values rather than approaching them and them seeing me as a conservative white woman trying to impose my opinion, my viewpoints onto them," she explained.

Must Behave Like Americans

Author and activist Ron Miller pushes that message in his new book entitled Sellout: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch.

"Right now, there's this infatuation with ideas that have been on the ash heap of history and we need to break away from those ideas. We need to start behaving like Americans," Miller said.

Like Smith, Miller said his Christian faith drives his conservative politics.

CBN News asked him how do conservatives, black or white, get past this notion that they're racist?

"I think the most important thing is dialogue," he said. "What we find typically is Democrats take blacks for granted and Republicans and/or conservatives ignore them because they don't think they have a chance."

Miller said all too often the media portrays black conservatives as cartoon characters, instead of real people.

Frederick Douglass Foundation

The effort to change that way of thinking and get those real people elected has spread to Washington, D.C., where another organization apart from Smith's has the same goal and inspiration.

The Frederick Douglass Foundation was founded two years ago. It supported and promoted the 40 black Republicans who ran for Congress this year - the most black candidates running for political office since Reconstruction.

Since the primaries, 15 candidates are still working the campaign trail. CBN News asked the foundation's vice-chairman Dean Nelson if this is the beginning of a new era for black candidates.

"We've had, you know, 40 years: the Congressional Black Caucus just celebrated their annual conference. I think after 40 years most African Americans are asking the question -- Are we better off?" he explained.

"And I think what we have to realize is a lot of the policies that have been advocated by those of the left really haven't worked, particularly in urban America," he said.

Diversification Key

Every member of the Congressional Black Caucus is a Democrat. To stay viable, experts say the GOP must start concentrating on becoming more diverse.

"This country is changing dramatically. By 2050, whites will be a minority of the population. The Republican Party right now is heavily white and it's heavily male," said Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virgina's Center for Politics.

"If the Republicans don't diversify, even though they'll have good years like 2010, they will not be able to compete nationally in the way that they have been used to," he said.

Yet when conservative leaders, like Sarah Palin, defend actions that some might consider to be racist in tone, like when Dr. Laura Schlessinger repeatedly used the 'n' word on her radio show earlier this year -- Nelson said it only makes his job harder.

"I wish that we could have a messaging class for all of the non-black, you know, people who are running for office," he said.

Nelson said by the next presidential election, he hopes that African Americans will want to elect people of unquestionable character and sterling qualities to office.

"I'm reminded of a very powerful quote from James A. Garfield who said, 'The people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless or corrupt, it's because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption,'" he said.

"'But if that body be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities,'" he continued. "And it's our hope that those in the African American community will demand more of their elected officials."

**Originally published Oct. 12, 2010. 

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CBN News
Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.