Fact-checking Larry Elder’s reparations chatter on 'Fox & Friends'

Larry Elder at the LA Premiere of "Death of a Nation" on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Sanjuan/AP)
Larry Elder at the LA Premiere of "Death of a Nation" on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Sanjuan/AP)

Conservative commentator and radio show host Larry Elder made a series of claims about slavery and civil rights during a June 20 appearance on "Fox & Friends."

His remarks came after anchor Ainsley Earhardt called attention to a moment during the June 19 congressional hearing on reparations when former NFL athlete Burgess Owens said he left the Democratic Party because it was "part of slavery."

"Republicans did not own slaves," Elder said. "Democrats owned slaves. Democrats founded the KKK. Democrats opposed the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment. As a percentage of the party, more Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than did Democrats. Maybe Democrats ought to sue themselves for reparations."

That’s a lot to unpack, so we decided to break Elder’s statement up into four parts. We reached out to Kevin Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, who has addressed some of the same claims on Twitter. Then we talked to a few other historians for their thoughts.

One detail we’ll mention at the top: The political parties of the past are not the same parties we know today. In fact, they reversed platforms midway through the 20th century. 

Elaine Frantz, professor of history at Kent State University, said Reconstruction-era Republicans were focused on strengthening federal control over the former confederacy to protect civil rights. As a result, the party enjoyed support from the majority of black southerners. 

Democrats, on the other hand, wanted to "restore the economic and political power of the former slaveholding elites and suppress black political and economic advances," Frantz said. Most white southerners were Democrats.

"This alignment changes in the 1920s and 1930s," Frantz said, noting how black Americans were swayed to the Democratic Party as Republicans focused on law-and-order policing and Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed for social and economic justice.

This context matters, because Elder’s claims could imply to many that today’s Democrats would have been pro-slavery in another era.

"Republicans did not own slaves. Democrats owned slaves."

The claim that Republicans did not own slaves is false, and Elder corrected the record on Twitter the next day.

"Republicans were obviously the party of abolition, but there were in fact Republicans who owned slaves," Kruse told us.

Francis P. Blair, one of the Republican Party’s founders, owned slaves while he presided over the 1856 Republican convention and was a delegate in 1860, Kruse said.

Benjamin Burton, who served twice as a state legislator in Delaware under the Whig party before becoming a Republican later in life, also owned slaves, according to his obituary. In fact, his 28 slaves made him Delaware’s leading slave-owner.

Blair and Burton were not the only two. After conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza made a similar claim on Twitter, Kruse and other historians on Twitter identified eight more prominent Republicans who also owned slaves in 1860.

"As to no Republicans ever owning slaves, I was wrong, and I've corrected it on social media," Elder said in a statement to PolitiFact. "There were at least 10."

"Democrats founded the KKK."

The claim that Democrats founded the KKK claim is misleading, and PolitiFact has fact-checked similar claims twice before, in 2013 and 2018.

Many southern whites during the 1860s and 1870s were, in fact, Democrats, and some joined the Ku Klux Klan. But there’s no evidence that the group was founded by the Democratic Party. As we’ve noted in our previous fact-checks, the KKK was more of a grassroots development.

Historians disagree on the exact year the KKK took form. But they do agree that it was founded between 1865 and 1867 by a group of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tenn., as a social fraternity that quickly morphed into a violent white supremacy group. 

"The men who started the Klan were southerners and almost certainly voted Democrat, but that’s a far cry from the claim that the party set up the organization," Kruse said. 

Frantz said the original KKK only existed in a "meaningful way" until 1871. Around 1920, a new, larger organization adopted the name. "And while the second Klan stood for different things in different regions, it was much more tied to the Republican than the Democratic Party," she said.

"The Klan’s later history showed alliances with both parties," Kruse added. "At its peak power in the 1920s, the Klan aligned with the Democrats and Republicans in different states."

Kruse said the KKK had particularly strong footing in Indiana, where the group’s leader was "a kingmaker in GOP politics and took down several GOP officials with a scandal."

"Democrats opposed the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment."

It’s accurate that Democrats opposed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to anyone born in the United States, and the 15th Amendment guaranteed voting rights for men of all races.

Historians we spoke to said the majority of Reconstruction-era Democrats did, in fact, oppose these three amendments. Republicans led the way each time.

"As a percentage of the party, more Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

More Republicans did vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the statement needs context, and the votes had bipartisan majorities. 

The act, best known for barring discrimination in public accommodations, was proposed by Democratic President John F. Kennedy and signed into law by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson.

It first passed the House on Feb. 10, 1964, by a margin of 290-130. We looked at how members of each party voted in a 2010 fact-check.

As we noted, 61% of Democrats (152 yeas and 96 nays) and 80% of Republicans (138 yeas and 34 nays) voted for the bill to pass the House.

The Senate passed the bill on June 19, 1964, by a 73-27 margin, with about 69% of Democrats (46 yeas, 21 nays) and 82% of Republicans (27 yeas, 6 nays) voting for the measure on final passage.

So, in both chambers of Congress, a greater percentage of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than Democrats. Elder was right.

Kruse said the claim can be misleading when used to suggest Republicans "were the prime mover on civil rights laws in the 1960s," since the act was proposed by a Democratic president, signed by a Democratic president and passed through a Democrat-led Congress. 

In a Twitter thread, Kruse argued that the votes were split more by region than by party, with southern members of both parties resisting the bill and northern members supporting it.