At the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, sandwiched between the historic 1963 March on Washington, enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the showdown on voting rights, a delegation of Black Mississippians showed up in Atlantic City, New Jersey demanding to be seated as delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Personified by activist Fannie Lou Hamer, the face-off in the vacation resort shaped Democratic Party politics for the next three decades. Blacks became a force, empowered by the Voting Rights Act, they began to vote in force and seek elective office. The era ushered in a generation of Black office holders from city halls to Congress, and gave Blacks tremendous leverage in party politics. This newfound power and presence was seen in the appointment of the Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court, Dr. Robert Weaver as the first Black cabinet Secretary, and Edward Brooke, a Republican, as the first Black Senator since Reconstruction.
Over the past week echoes of that fight for recognition re-emerged as Black leaders called upon the White House to address Black joblessness in the face of a record recession. The Congressional Black Caucus, National Urban League and civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson called upon the President to advance an economic agenda specifically targeting Blacks. The calls were reminiscent of that earlier time in America when Blacks were fighting to be recognized politically and included in the policy debates, and a white, southerner sat in the Oval Office. The irony is that today Blacks make up a sizable contingent of the Democratic Caucus in Congress and the first Black President occupies the White House. It is safe to assume that if she were alive today, Fannie Lou Hamer would be perplexed and frustrated.
While much attention has been given the supposed disintegration of the Republican Party and its falling prey to the “rogue” politics of an obscure former governor from Alaska, little has been made of the hand-to-hand combat between factions of the Democratic Party. While Blacks express anger and disappointment over being ignored, despite electoral loyalty, Latinos have their own list of grievances as the newly crowned “first minority” of America. Blacks and Latinos now see an emerging contingent of gay Democrats that are making civil rights claims, though each of the latter groups still have unresolved equity claims. Likewise, a suspicious eye is cast upon white liberals who often rally the troops but make first claims on the spoils when the party emerges victorious from an electoral contest. Complicating matters further is a contingent of conservative or “Blue Dog” Democrats who act suspiciously like their Dixiecrat forebears and who seem to use “fiscal responsibility” as a shield for their racial animus.
In as much as the GOP is struggling to define itself, Democrats may have an even greater challenge. Lost in the midst of the euphoria of Barack Obama’s historic win is the fact that the coalition that put him in office had a political agenda but lacked one by which to govern. In the face of a record recession and two wars, Democrats seem to be a party at odds with itself. The debate over universal health care is a prime example. For decades now Democrats have taken up health care as a crusade, and now when they are on the verge of victory, appear ready to implode. Despite the advantage of one of their own in the White House, control of the House of Representatives, and a slim majority in the Senate, the party seems intent on fumbling the ball on health care. Conservative Democrats have an agenda, as do the party’s so-called progressive bloc, but as the two sides bicker, the constituents most likely to suffer from the failure to enact health care are Blacks and Latinos – the party’s future.
This is no one-time dilemma for the Democrats. This is likely the state of Democratic politics for years to come. No doubt, the tent is bigger than that constructed by the Republicans, but it appears that not everyone under the tent has equal standing. One of the constant complaints of Black Democrats is the party’s failure to reciprocate when it is clear Blacks have carried the party’s agenda. It was at the heart of Rev. Jackson’s presidential candidacies in 1984 and 1988 and before that the Gary Black political conventions. At each turn, it appeared Blacks felt they were being taken for granted despite delivering significant votes to white Democratic candidates. Many of those grievances persist today albeit with a sense of remorse as it is recognized that the buck now stops at the desk of a Black President. Few Blacks had any real expectation that as President, Barack Obama, would wave a magic wand and centuries of disparity would fade away. More than a few, though, had the expectation that Black grievances would be more readily addressed by this White House.
Most Blacks understood, and continue to empathize with a President that has inherited two wars and walked into a historic, global economic meltdown. Still, there is a growing despair in the Black community that job losses, debt and home foreclosures will become a set of conditions disproportionately their own. The idea of surrendering claims for the welfare of the party now offends many Blacks who have grown tired of waiting their turn. In many ways, Blacks and conservatives in the GOP share a unique kinship. Both groups are frustrated by their perceived abandonment by their party and must resort to protest politics to be heard. Where those similarities end is the relative influence of the right in Republican politics compared to the distance that Blacks often seem to have to travel to gain the attention of Democrats. From a purely pragmatic perspective, Blacks must now ponder whether “progressive” is a term of endearment or purely a façade for white liberals to gain benefits accrued to voters of color.