In 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that, to the joy of millions of African-Americans, Barack Obama redeemed by winning the presidency. As the youngest speaker at that March on Washington gathering, John Lewis identified another dream. It, too, has been redeemed by the American political system. But the blessing has been decidedly mixed. On that sweltering August day, Mr. Lewis, the 23-year-old champion of voting rights, lamented the absence of an unequivocal “party of principles” from the political scene. “The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland,” Mr. Lewis said. “The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater.”
He was describing the disparate ideological blends that characterized both parties at that time. Democrats spanned the distance from the liberal young President John F. Kennedy, then gingerly trying to advance civil rights, to the conservative Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi, a segregationist aiming to thwart him. Republicans stretched from Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York, a Kennedy ally on the issue, to Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, who opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act that passed the next year.
In the half-century since, the unalloyed “party of principles” Mr. Lewis yearned for has come to pass. Present-day Democrats, including those in the House of Representatives, where Mr. Lewis has represented Georgia for nearly 30 years, uniformly share Mr. Lewis’ vision of racial progressivism.
Present-day Republicans have long since abandoned Mr. Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Yet the Arizonan’s deep-rooted conservatism, advanced later by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, now defines the party on issues from economics to voting rights.