Black Voices Not Heard in Campaign

Who is speaking to the issues of particular interest to 35 million African Americans in the 1996 presidential campaigns? What happened to the voice of two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson? Where is the reasoned voice of President Clinton’s golfing buddy, Vernon Jordan? And here in Alabama, who is speaking politically for over one million nonwhite citizens? Where are those black political voices of elections past? What about, Joe Reed, Alabama’s perennial political campaign antagonist? Are we truly witnessing the end of contentious racial politics, because white politicians are serving their nonwhite constituents’ political interests, or is something more outrageous muting nonwhite political voice during this campaign season.

In this last presidential campaign of the century, the muted black political voices are disquieting. While the black-white political paradigm ushered in by the civil rights movement is problematic, it is far better than what existed before. Then, there was no black political voice. Now, after more than two decades of often rankled political inclusion, nonwhite Alabamians are again at the back door of both the 1996 presidential and senatorial campaigns. Paradoxically, the winning white candidates’ claims to universal leadership, manifest failure because of their inability or refusal to address the myriad problems affecting the lives and communities of their nonwhite constituents.

When traditional leaders failed to effectively address problems affecting their communities, America’s African Diaspora turned to others at the margin of society for leadership. Louis Farrakhan, for example, stepped in to fill a national leadership void and led the Million-Man-March, an assembly of black men from all across the United States, to the Capitol. They came to Washington to focus the nation on issues important to African Americans; such as the high rate of incarceration of young black males, double digit unemployment rates within that demographic group, or the appalling number of fatherless African American Children.

When Farrakhan arrived in Washington with the Million-Man-March, Mayor Marion Barry was there to welcome him. This is the same Marion Barry who was convicted of smoking crack cocaine. After he served his time in prison, supporters elected Barry to his fourth term as mayor of Washington D.C.

Barry’s political resurrection is not an isolated case. In 1994, Alabama voters returned Thomas Reed to his old job as State Representative after he served a prison term for accepting a $10,000 bribe. In a more recent local election, Tuskegee voters replaced their five term mayor, Johnny Ford, with Ron Williams, who was once convicted of attempting to bribe a state senator. Why are voters looking to the margins of our political landscape for leaders? And it is not just black voters. White voters in Virginia almost elected Ollie North, of the infamous Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages folly, running as a Republican, to a U. S. Senate.

No one can say with any degree of certainty what combination of social and political values are manifested by either, Berry’s, William’s or North’s supporters. In the privacy of the voting booth, voters cast their votes for candidates they perceive will do the best job looking after their interests. In this manner, nonwhite voters act no different than white voters. White voters were casting their votes for candidates they perceived best for their interests long before blacks could vote…and in Alabama that white vote was too often for the candidate that promised to keep blacks out of the voting booth.

Many nonwhite voters distrust white politicians, and with good reasons for their distrust. Take for example Senator Richard Shelby: should nonwhite voters trust him? In 1994 he bolted the Democratic Party … the ideological home of Alabama’s black voters … for the Republican Party, which frequently appears hostile toward nonwhites. Senator Shelby’s political treachery fell with a callous indifference upon Alabama’s black voters, who provided the margin of votes to unseat Jeremiah Denton, the Republican incumbent in 1986. Nevertheless in 1994, when the political tea leaves forecast the angry white male revolt, Shelby abandoned his loyal black constituents in the Democratic Party and joined ranks with those trying to undo political and social gains their demographic group made during the civil rights movement.

The U.S. Senate campaigns of Democratic candidate, Roger Bedford, and his Republican opponent, Jeff Sessions, for retiring Senator Heflin’s seat, have effectively closed the front door on African American participation. While it is refreshing to have a campaign free of race baiting, it is troublesome when the two candidates campaigning for Alabama’s seat in the U.S. Senate conduct their respective campaigns as if the only voters in the state are white males.

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Originally Published: 9 October 1996, Montgomery Advertiser

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