By Bill Woods
How have African- Americans fared in the political process in the last five and a half decades? This period covers the flowering of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of the first African-American President. It's a time frame that produced major advancements, but also left large problems and issues to be addressed.
When Streetvibes editor Gabriela Godinez-Feregrino decided to dedicate this issue to Black History Month, she asked me to do a piece on African- Americans and politics. As an aging white man, I took on this assignment with trepidation. Nevertheless, I determined to offer my observations on this theme beginning with the year I graduated from college in 1963.
Much of the South was still legally segregated in the early 1960s, and I graduated from a Midwestern college that still accepted national fraternities on campus that prohibited African- Americans from membership. During the summer after graduation in 1963, I landed a temporary job writing press releases for the City Charter Committee, Cincinnati's reform political party. It was a Council election year, and Charter was determined to reelect Theodore M. Berry, an African-American attorney, to that body. Under the PR-voting system (proportional representation), Berry had been elected to Council by large margins, but the voters abolished PR in 1957. Political observers at the time attribute the successful effort to eliminate proportional representation to a whispering campaign that Berry was getting too powerful and might eventually become mayor.
That summer was also the backdrop for the March on Washington, where thousands of African-Americans rallied for Civil Rights. I remember on that August afternoon, Forest Frank, the Director of the Charter Committee, called me into his office to watch this event on a small television set. In that setting, I heard Martin Luther King give his "I have a dream" speech. It was impossible not to be moved by his powerful words, and I think I unconsciously thought that this was an historic moment.
From August onward, Dr. King became one of the key figures in the Civil Rights movement, and more and more effective, peaceful protests took place throughout the South. Meanwhile here in Cincinnati that November, Theodore Berry won back a seat on Council. In the next few years, the movement moved forward on a number of fronts throughout the country.
For instance in Washington, D.C., a flurry of activity took place. Lyndon Johnson became an activist President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and he was able to move legislation along that had been bogged down for a long time. One of the major Civil Rights laws that passed during this period was the Voting Rights Act, an act that for years helped eliminate state laws designed to prevent African- Americans from voting and participating in the political process.
President Johnson also launched what he called "The War on Poverty," a plan that brought about urban projects such as the Community Action Program, Model Cities, and additional funding for housing and job training. These initiative weren't sufficient to eliminate poverty, but they did provide needed assistance to inner city Black neighborhoods.
These Civil Rights advances caused several backlashes in the country. Politicians such as Alabama Governor George Wallace made his reputation by defying the new federal laws, and the once solid Democratic South began its shift to the Republican Party. The urban riots that took place in cities across the nation from 1966-1968 were in part due to Black inner city residents feeling that all the fanfare about Civil Rights and desegregation had not done much to improve their lives.
Meanwhile more African- Americans were elected to public office. Changing urban demographics made this possible, and when Carl Stokes was elected Mayor of Cleveland in 1967, he became the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city. When I was teaching at Wilmington College in 1969, I interviewed the Mayor when he received an honorary degree at the College's graduation ceremonies.
This trend continued. Not only were more and more African- Americans selected as mayors, but also a number of them were elected to Congress from cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and New York City. In fact, Lewis Stokes, Carl Stokes' brother, was elected to Congress from a Cleveland area district, and he served for years as an influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus. A precursor to Barack Obama's successful campaign for President in 2008 was the Rev. Jesse Jackson's credible bid for the Democratic nomination for that office in 1988.
In short, the progress of African- Americans winning public office has gone forward to the present day. Finally, Barack Obama was elected to the nation's highest office for two terms. At the moment, at least two African-Americans are vying for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020.
Nevertheless, several major problems plague our political system today that makes life difficult for millions of African- Americans. The influence of "big money" in political campaigns at all levels gives way too much influence to wealthy interest groups. Little attention in recent times has been paid to growing poverty and income inequality, and a large percentage of low-income families and individuals are African-American. The safety net of programs and services for people in need has been gutted over the last three decades.
Reforms must put in place that will make average Americans, and especially people in need, the focus of attention of our elected representatives.
A second problem for African- Americans is their minimal influence on the Republican Party. In the last fifty years, the Party of Lincoln has become the white man's party, and Republican officials tend to ignore Civil Rights issues or issues of urban poverty. This fact makes the Democratic Party the only political outlet for African- Americans.
In summary, African-Americans have had a lot of progress politically over the last half-century, and that fact should be celebrated. However, it must not be ignored that the U.S. is at turning point in dealing with some critical economic, social, and political issues. We all must make some adequate public responses to them or accept a steady decline.