African Americans and the 2004 Election


The United States was born from the struggles of the settlers for the right to have a say in their lives and their future. The Boston Tea Party in 1774 mobilized the citizenry around the slogan, 'no taxation without representation.' This is still the beacon call for today’s African American community and other segments of our multi-racial and multi-national country.

From the first breath of our nation, ex-slaves, freeman and women, gave their energies as well as their lives not only for freedom and liberty, but also for the democratic right to have a voice in the governance of every precinct, borough, town, city, state and national office. There is no more dramatic example of this resolve than the fact that the first person to fall in the Revolutionary War was that of an African American, Crispus Attucks.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified July 23, 1868, granted citizenship to African Americans; and the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified March 30, 1870 gave the new citizens of color the right to vote. The organized move to rescind these amendments and further deprive African Americans their rights, particularly voting rights, was almost simultaneous with the passing of their enactment.

During the post-Civil War era, African Americans voters outnumbered white voters in many states. Despite the difficulties in gaining enfranchisement, from 1870 until the end of the century, twenty-two African Americans were elected to the US Congress. Every electoral campaign, whether for national or local office, was a struggle to overcome endemic racism and organized societies, like the KKK, that were established to deny the African American all rights including their right to vote.

During this difficult period, South Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia and other southern states elected African Americans to legislative positions.

The Suffrage Movement to grant women the right to vote was rather brief in historical terms – about 70 years (1850 -1920). From its inception, the Suffragette Movement had the support of a significant segment of the African American community despite their disenfranchisement in many communities. Notable Black liberation figures, Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were in the vanguard working shoulder to shoulder with the women in their quest for the vote. This struggle ended with the successful ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Poll taxes and literacy tests were used to restrict the Black vote. Through the years additional methods of intimidation were employed against those who tried to exercise their right to vote. Among these strong-armed and lawless tactics were job loss threats, firebombing of homes, drive-by shootings, and murders. Through the years the African American community was resolve in its quest and thousands attempted to register to vote.

Among the most significant results of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s beyond desegregating public accommodations was the number of 'freedom fighters' throughout the country who ran for office. This included the current chair of the NAACP, Julian Bond. He was the youngest person and the first black to have his named placed in nomination for the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate. Bond was first elected in 1965 to the Georgia State Assembly with campaign funds less than $1,000 that he borrowed from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Despite his overwhelming electoral victory, the State Assembly refused to seat Bond because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. After a lawsuit and public pressure, he was seated in the next election. Bond stood on the turf of our countries historical past of unconstitutionally and undemocratically usurped African American votes and denying duly elected African Americans their elected seat. In 1873, the Texas State Legislature refused to seat H. R. Pinchback solely because he was a Black.

The most dramatic challenge for representation took place at the 1964 Democratic Convention when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a formation of the Civil Rights Movement, challenged the Democratic Party to recognize and seat them as the legitimate and only representative Mississippi delegation. While the convention rejected the appeal of the mainly Black delegation, this tactic ultimately led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This Act eliminated poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments to full African American enfranchisement. Following its passage, not only were Blacks able to vote, but many legislative districts in the south and nationally were redrawn to facilitate the election of Black and Latino legislators.

Beyond the assault on African American elected officials, the community has been targeted for special non-attention under Reagan, and both Bush presidents. President Reagan criminalized the African American community by assaulting Black women as cheaters and welfare queens. George H. W. Bush’s war economy and failed Iraq strategy have affected the working class and especially African Americans. The Bush administration has tried to pit the rights of African Americans against those of Latinos. Bush junior has tried to exploit the increase in the Latino population. He has courted the Latino vote and increased his politicking and funds in the Spanish speaking communities. At the same time, since the African American community is not a priority, funding for schools and healthcare programs have been decreased.

It should be noted that G. W. Bush is the first president, since Warren Harding in 1920, who has refused to meet with organized Black Elected officials. The Congressional Black Caucus has all but begged him to sit and discuss the state of affairs in the African American community. Bush and his brother, Jeb, Governor of Florida, declined invitations to address the 2003 NAACP Convention held in Miami, Florida. In this election year, President Bush might be willing to reform himself and address the NAACP convention in July in Philadelphia.

Every 10 years following the census, our country engages in the ritual of realigning legislative districts. Originally, one of the main purposes of this process was to reapportion the states’ representatives in Congress. Today, this process is fraught with political maneuvering and power grabbing that is bent on disenfranchising large numbers of Black and Latino voters. While elected officials are busy denying or weakening the vote for minority representation, they are also realigning legislative districts to ensure their party’s electoral strength for the next decade.

In the face of this gerrymandering to reduce Black and Latino representation, on February 23, 2004 Boston was ordered by the US Circuit Court of appeals to redraw the redistricting map that deprived Black voters of representation. The court has blocked the elections in Boston this fall for 17 State House seats until the redistricting takes place.

The 2000 theft of the presidential election by the Republicans in Florida and the Supreme Court was the boldest attempt to turn back the clock by denying the vote to thousands of people of color and then elderly. Ripples of this scandal still reverberate throughout the nation. Once the Florida/Supreme Court electoral theft occurred the dam was opened for breeching the popular will of the working class, African Americans, and Latinos in particular.

This disgraceful anti-democratic act emboldened the Republicans in Texas in their racist redistricting that has ensured a dramatic decrease in Mexican American and Black elected officials. This 2003 Texas gerrymandering is one of the most blatant racist maneuvers in modern history. The African American Community historically votes for candidates with the most progressive platforms. A new area of concern for all voters, but especially those for a progressive agenda, is the electronic voting machines. The new machines can become the modern way to skew or steal votes. Significant security flaws that promote tampering and fraud have documented, including remote access to the machines. At least one of the four machine manufacturers, Diebold, is a vocal supporter and contributor to Bush. Since there is no paper trail or means to confirm a vote on these machines, it is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that hackers could hone in on precincts that are marginal and then convert or precalibrate the votes. With the past history of denying or negatively influencing the African American vote, this scenario has probably already been played out or is being contemplated. Neither the voter nor any independent challenger has any way to confirm or deny the vote without a paper trail. To date, there seems to be great resistance to insure that each vote is recorded with a paper copy for authentication. Community vigilance is and must be organized to guarantee the integrity of the machines and thus the vote.

Candidates who challenge the status quo have traditionally raised program issues and topics that change the tenor of the campaign. African American candidates for any office generally bring with them the history of the oppression of their people. This was true when the first African American, James W. Ford ran for Vice President of the US in 1932. Ford ran on the Communist Part ticket with William Z. Foster. They received 102,991 votes. This was 1932! Ford was the Communist forerunner to the campaigns of Angela Davis and Jarvis Tyner. These candidates elevated the campaign rhetoric and debates to include the issues of racism, the economic plight of the working class, and socialism.

Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman from New York, ran for President in 1972. She boldly launched a campaign challenging for the office that has been reserved for 'white men.' The current 2004 campaign saw another Black Woman, Carol Mosely Braun, seriously for President. Another African American, Al Sharpton, joined her. Both raised issues that addressed the broad economic, social, and international concerns of the African American community. Both candidates challenged the militaristic role that the US is playing in Iraq. Sharpton raised the issue of our country’s role orchestrating the coup in Haiti. He also challenged the US immigration policy towards the Haitian immigrants.

As a nation we have a pathetic history of engaging the populace in the democratic process of voting. Most national elections see fewer that 50 percent of the registered voters exercising that right.

However, when there is a compelling issue or candidate at the community or national level, the electorate will come to the polls. As an example the African American vote in the Philadelphia 2003 mayoral election was mobilized by the FBI 'crime' probe. To the African American community, this was an apparent attempt to unseat the Democratic Party and the African American mayor. A Democratic loss in Philadelphia would have placed Pennsylvania squarely in the hands of the Republicans for the 2004 presidential campaign. The Black community rallied with its allies, white and Latino and gave the incumbent mayor a landslide victory.

The irony of 2004 according to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies is that nationally Black male elected officials (BEOs) have been declining. At the same time, lack elected women have 'outstripped that of their male counterparts by 5 to 1' in successful electoral contests.

Today, Mississippi has the most BEOs, followed by Alabama, Louisiana, Illinois, and Georgia. For of the five states with the most BEOs are southern.

Life presents us with many challenges. We win a battle and then we lose some of our gains. This is the nature of class struggle. But in the main, struggle means progress. This is the message that must be conveyed in this upcoming election year. Everywhere we go today, we hear 'register and vote.' This call is received especially among youth, with a great deal of cynicism, distrust, and apathy

There is considerable hard-core anti-vote sentiment especially among Black males. They rationalize:

1. Their vote won’t count with Florida cited.

2. Once elected the official will not represent their constituency – the indifference once they are elected.

3. Black officials are often rogues and out for their own self-aggrandizement.

4. Black elected officials are held to higher standards than their white counterparts thus hindering their efforts to serve the community. Adam Clayton Powell is cited as an example. While representing New York, Powell was hounded from Congress for the same or lesser indiscretions that most of his colleagues had committed for years.

This year the stakes are too high to sit out the election. The ultra-right headed by President Bush represents the most dangerous, racist, anti-working class force in our history that must be defeated if we are to set the stage for future progress. While large blocks of African American youth don’t vote and may never vote, unprecedented electoral organizing campaigns have been initiated to win voters in 2004

One of the most innovative tactics was the Hip Hop Forum in June 2004 whose message was to create a voting block among African American youth. Hip Hop artists donated their talents and lyrics to promote youth involvement in the electoral process. Free admission to the forum was proof of registering fifty people to vote.

This is not the first election that the Hip Hop community has been involved in. Hip Hop entrepreneur, Russell Simmons founder of Def Jam Records, in recent elections held youth jams throughout the country featuring top artists. Again the admission fee was a voter registration card.

African American’s are a critical electoral constituency and it is essential to maintain and advance the legacy of those who fought and died for a democratic electoral structure that will include equal access to the ballot for all political parties and all ethnic and religious groups.

It is imperative that the African American community be fully mobilized in this presidential year if Bush and his band of warmongers is to be defeated.

--Debbie Bell chairs the African American equality commission of the Communist Party USA.

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