Tag Archive for Leah M. Wright

Assisted by Fellowship, Wright Reveals Black Agendas in GOP

Leah Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history, received a grant worth $31,500 from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The award is supporting her her current book project.

Leah Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history, received a grant from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The award is supporting her current book project.

On a chilly January morning in 1978, Jesse Jackson delivered a rousing keynote address to a large group of political leaders. Energized from a recent meeting with President Jimmy Carter at the White House, the civil rights activist dazzled his audience with nearly an hour of political “gospel rock.” At the end of Jackson’s fiery speech, his audience launched a five-minute standing ovation. Oddly, his audience was a group of white Republicans.

Why would a liberal civil rights activist – with ties to the Democratic Party – engage a political party that had a reputation for turning its back on the black interests? Jackson wasn’t alone. Throughout the modern postwar period, a number of black Americans worked with and within the GOP to influence the direction of the party. And in the past two decades, America has witnessed a surprising number of high-profile black Republicans including Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Steele, Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts and Herman Cain.

“The extensive literature on the histories of civil rights and American politics suggests, in no uncertain terms, that African Americans have no business being conservative,” says Leah Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history.

As a recent recipient of a Career Enhancement Fellowship for Junior Faculty, Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history, is working to revise a historical blind spot by demonstrating that black Americans have worked consistently with Republicans to pursue an agenda of racial uplift.

The Career Enhancement Fellowships for Junior Faculty Program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, supports junior faculty who have a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities,

Wright Receives Award from Woodrow Wilson Fellowship

Leah Wright, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of African American studies, received a 2012 Career Enhancement Fellowship for Junior Faculty funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The grant, worth $31,500, will support her her current book project, tentatively titled, The Loneliness of the Black Conservative: Pragmatic Politics & The Pursuit of Power.

The 2012 Career Enhancement Fellowship program seeks to increase the presence of minority junior faculty (African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and Native Americans and Native Alaskans), and other junior faculty members committed to eradicating racial disparities, in core fields in the arts and sciences. The goal is to reduce racial disparities among faculty members and facilitate efforts to increase the diversity of students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs.

The Riddle of Black Republicans: More Than Meets the Eye

Leah Wright

“When one surfaces on the national stage, most people tend to view the event as a sort of political phenomenon,” Leah Wright says. “They look at it with nearly the same disbelief and surprise as they would do with a unicorn sighting.”

The phenomenon Wright is referring to? Why black Republicans, of course.

“When we see a Herman Cain, Colin Powell, Condolezza Rice or Allen West appear on the national scene, the news media and many people tend to view these individuals as extreme outliers. In reality they are much more common than we are led to believe,” says Wright, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of African-American studies.

The presence of black Republicans is also much more long-standing than most reporters or commentators often lead people to believe. In fact, for several decades after the Civil War, blacks were almost exclusively Republican. After all, that was the “Party of Lincoln” and emancipation while southern Democrats were the party of oppression, Jim Crow and the KKK.

However, allegiances began to change significantly in the 1930s with the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal. The move to the Democratic Party solidified with the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and advancing his great society programs. Still, in 1966, Edward Brooke from Massachusetts, a Republican, became the first popularly-elected black U.S. Senator.

Brooke’s rise through the Republican Party was not an anomaly. In fact, Wright argues, the ascension of Brooke and other black Republicans is in part a design drawn up by moderate and independent civil rights-era leaders, including Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche.

“Bunche’s strategy, at times, was to advance civil rights and issues confronting black communities through both parties,” Wright says. “He was a mentor to Brooke and to others. There was, and continues to be, a segment of the black community to whom the Republican Party presents a reasonable political choice.”

Wright is quick to add that the choice is not purely mercenary, that the individual’s values must line up with at least most of the party’s values.

“Most politicians are not ideologues; they do not subscribe to rigid dogma,” she says. “As a result, both parties offer a certain flexibility. What is forgotten is that many of the values embraced by Republicans and conservatives were also embraced by the civil rights movement, and continue to be embraced by many in the black community.”

These include beliefs in personal accountability, respectability, preference for small government and the free market, embracing of “family values,” and an acceptance of a brand of social justice that focuses more on judicial equality than on redistribution of wealth. These are all areas openly embraced by some conservatives and Republicans, as well.

For black people who strongly believe in these values, the Republican Party feels like more of a home than the Democratic Party.

“This falls exactly in line with the thinking of those in the Civil Rights movement who openly advocated for black people to become involved in both parties,” Wright says. “They argued that being involved with both parties means no party can take you for granted. That creates leverage for minority groups. It also affords different paths to expand party flexibility and access to genuine political power.”

Wright says that there are also black conservatives in non-elected policy positions, think tanks and other areas where they often affect large party perspectives and work toward policy changes.

“Black Republicans are out there and well-established,” she says. “They shouldn’t continue to be seen as the equivalent of unicorns.”

Wright is currently completing her book manuscript, The Loneliness of the Black Conservative: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.

Wright Authors Chapter in “How the South Became Republican” Book

Leah Wright wrote a chapter titled “The Black Cabinet: Economic Civil Rights in the Nixon Administration,” which appears on pages 240-290 in the book,  Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican. More information on the book is online here. Wright is assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history.

Wright also spent part of the summer as one of four Frederick B. Artz Scholars at Oberlin College. She examined the papers of Jewel LaFontant MANkarious – a prominent civil rights activist, lawyer and presidential appointee.

Leah Wright: New History, African American Studies Assistant Professor

Leah Wright, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of African American studies, is an expert on United States history, African American studies and American politics. (Photo by Stefan Weinberger '10)

Leah Wright, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of African American studies, is an expert on United States history, African American studies and American politics. (Photo by Stefan Weinberger '10)

Leah Wright, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of African American studies joined Wesleyan’s staff this summer.

Wright says she loves being part of an interdisciplinary community and “was impressed by the intellectual curiosity and academic excellence of the students at Wesleyan.” Multiple factors attracted her to the university.

“I was also excited about the faculty—there is equal attention paid to teaching and research, and as a result, Wesleyan faculty excel at both. Joining Wesleyan was a major opportunity to join a vibrant and welcoming intellectual community.”

She graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College in 2003 with a bachelor’s in history. Wright went on to obtain a Master’s and a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. This summer she defended her doctoral dissertation titled “The Loneliness of the Black Conservative: Black Republicans and the Grand Old Party, 1964-1980.” Wright is currently negotiating with publishers to convert her manuscript into a published book.

Wright’s book proposal abstract reads: “Traditionally, the scholarship on civil rights has assumed that the movement existed solely within the boundaries of liberalism; however, this project argues that black Republicans also attempted to promote a genuine agenda of racial equality, civil rights, and black uplift through the conservative movement and the Republican apparatus. Despite the seeming contradiction of African Americans working for civil rights in a party that appeared increasingly hostile to that very idea, many black Republicans did see themselves as part of the movement. In many ways this story is a comparative project about the vision for black equality and advancement.”

Her research interests include United States history, African American studies and American politics. Her extensive research on Black conservatives in the U.S.—specifically Black Republicans—combines all of her interests. Additionally, she has studied women in the Black Power movement and Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association

Wright is the author and co-author of several articles, including “Conscience of a Black Conservative: The 1964 Election and the Rise of the National Negro Republican Assembly,” in Federal History.

Wright was awarded with a Woodrow Wilson Foundation Dissertation Writing Fellowship for 2008 – 2009. Notably, she has received three presidential libraries grants (i.e. the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library Research Grant, the Gerald Ford Presidential Library Research Grant and the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library O’Donnell Research Grant). Wright received multiple Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Development/Enhancement Grants throughout her scholarship. She was a Andrew W. Mellon Fellow from 2001 to 2003 and is the first Mellon Fellow to join the Wesleyan faculty, according to Krishna Wilson, who is the coordinator of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship at Wesleyan.

This semester, Wright is teaching 20th Century Black Conservatism and The Long Civil Rights Movement in America. In spring 2010, she will be teaching Modern African-American History and U.S. Political History Since 1945.

For her civil rights course, Wright enjoyed working with Valerie Gillispie, Assistant University Archivist, to expose students to the resources within Wesleyan’s archives.

“The Civil Rights Archive at Wesleyan is a wonderful resource,” Wright says.

“Val Gillispie took us through a guided tour of archival resources that allowed the students to better understand Wesleyan’s significant connection to the broader Civil Rights Movement. It was an exciting opportunity for students to ‘get their hands dirty’—and search through interesting, and relevant archival resources—which is a critical component for any historian.”

Wright is a native of Hartford and enjoys traveling, reading, and watching college basketball (her brother plays for Providence College).

Listen to Leah Wright’s recent appearance on WNPR’s Where We Live.