Cal  Thomas

Many have commented on the life and legacy of Jack Kemp -- the former Buffalo, N.Y., congressman, former vice presidential candidate, former HUD secretary, former professional football star and a friend for life to all those who knew him.

I knew Jack and his family well. Our children grew up together. We belonged to the same church.

Next to Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp was probably the most optimistic Republican I knew. He was also a conservative advocate for civil rights long before many other Republicans would address that issue. This was because, as he said, it was difficult to oppose people you had showered with as an athlete.

Kemp believed civil rights was a conservative issue. After all, don't conservatives value people before government and don't they want to liberate individuals from those things that limit their ability to succeed? Kemp saw racial discrimination as one of those limiting things and he tirelessly campaigned against it. He even supported voting rights for the District of Columbia, though it would ultimately mean more Democrats in Congress.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that Kemp's attempt to get his Republican Party to accept blacks and other ethnic minorities was "futile," given the GOP's "Southern strategy" in the 1960s and since. Kemp advocated economic independence and strong families. Herbert suggested that Kemp's strategy should have been to embrace Democratic objectives -- i.e., bigger and ever-growing government -- to help blacks overcome discrimination and poverty. The Herbert and Democratic Party approach has deepened dependency on government handouts. The Kemp approach sought to make the poor self-sustaining and independent of government.

In 1988, I attended a reception hosted by Kemp during the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. There may have been more African Americans at that event than in the entire GOP at the time. Kemp's civil rights activism was not for the purpose of attracting black votes -- though he openly appealed to blacks that they would find a better home and a better future in the Republican Party. Rather, his civil rights activism flowed from his belief that when the Declaration of Independence says all are created equal, it actually means all .

Cal Thomas

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Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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