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Michael Steele, Republican Leaders Have a Duty to Condemn Grand Old Bigots | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Michael Steele, Republican Leaders Have a Duty to Condemn Grand Old Bigots

Back in the 1950s, Democratic National Committee chairman Paul Butler fought a long and difficult battle with Southern and border-state Democratic parties that supported segregation.

Butler’s stance was decried by Democrats in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina—and even key Congressional leaders such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn, D-Texas. Many key Democrats called for his ouster. But the chairman, who served from 1955 to 1960 did not back off. When Southern Democrats selected delegations that might walk out of the 1960s convention in protest of a strong pro–civil rights stance, Butler invited “loyal” Democrats in those states to send alternative delegations. He enlisted the most prominent supporters of civil rights in the party, led by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to chair platform committees. And when state Democratic parties promoted bigotry, he denounced them.

Electoral results in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964—a period of remarkable growth for the party in Northern and Western states—vindicated Butler’s position, as would history.

Now, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn and other top leaders of the Grand Old Party face a similar challenge.

New reports that the Montana Republican Party maintains a platform plank calling for the outlawing of homosexuality—and, by extension, the arrest and incarceration of law abiding citizens whose only "crime" is their sexuality—highlights persistent bigotry among state-level Republican parties toward gays and lesbians. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that a number of openly gay and lesbian officials have been elected to public office as Republicans—and that Steele’s predecessor, former RNC chair Ken Mehlman, has opened up about his homosexuality and embraced the work of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the group that is mounting legal challenges to laws barring same-sex marriage.

On September 22, Texas Senator Cornyn is scheduled to address the national dinner of the Log Cabin Republicans, appearing before one of the largest gatherings of politically active gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the country.

Cornyn’s appearance offers a great opening for a national Republican leader to condemn open bigotry within the GOP. He can and should denounce the Montana Republican platform.

But Michael Steele ought not wait that long.

The chairman of the Republican National Committee should challenge bigotry within his party as aggressively as did Paul Butler within the Democratic Party of the 1950s and early 1960s.

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