• U.S.

The Nation: Mobilizing the Black Bloc

5 minute read

Black Americans, one of the last solid voting blocs hi the nation, gave almost 90% of their ballots to George McGovern in 1972. That translated into an estimated 6 million votes, or 20% of his total at the polls. For all their potential muscle, however, blacks have felt themselves out in the political cold for years —ignored since 1968 by Republican Washington and slighted in Democratic councils since McGovern’s defeat.

With 14 million blacks eligible to vote (about half of them are registered), black leaders this year are determined to barter their influence with this sizable bloc for increased influence on Democratic Party policy. That task has been made considerably more difficult by the fact that, at an unexpectedly early date, Georgia’s Jimmy Carter is virtually the only Democratic candidate left with whom to strike a bargain. Many blacks who had counted on Hubert Humphrey to serve as a rallying point were left stunned by his refusal to join the race. California Congressman Ron Dellums said: “We should have been asking questions a year ago, before we got to the point where we ran out of alternatives.”

Still, blacks are organizing to make Carter—or whoever eventually gets the Democratic nomination—take notice of them. In a three-day meeting that ended last week in Charlotte, N.C., more than 1,000 members of the Caucus of Black Democrats brandished what is at least their negative power—withholding black votes from a candidate they consider insufficiently responsive. Said Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher: “Any candidate running for President who feels that black people have no other option, no place to go, is in for a rude awakening. If we choose not to support any of the candidates, we could just stay home.” Putting it more affirmatively, Caucus Chairman Basil Paterson, who is also a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, remarked: “We can frame the issues hi such a way that blacks will be turned on.”

The conference drew up a “survival agenda” of demands. Among them: passage and quick federal action on the Humphrey-Hawkins “full employment” bill, a national health-care program, strong enforcement of affirmative-action programs for black employment, a guaranteed national income plan, more money for impoverished areas.

Cabinet Posts. The pre-eminence of Jimmy Carter left the conference in some confusion and uneasiness. Much of the Georgian’s black support in the early primaries was rooted in the desire to eliminate George Wallace from the race. But, said Jesse Jackson, head of Chicago’s Operation PUSH (for People United to Save Humanity): “The absence of Wallace is not the presence of justice.” According to Jackson, there is no candidate running who inspires the black community.

Nonetheless, Carter’s undisputed lead made him a focal point of the conference, an object of intense speculation. Behind closed doors, Young, Paterson, Hatcher, California’s Congresswoman Yvonne Burke and other black leaders met to hear Carter. According to one participant, Carter declared: “I can win the primaries and I can win the nomination. But I can’t win the election without the support of blacks outside of Georgia.” To get that support, Carter agreed to: 1) appoint blacks—from a list submitted by the black Democrats—to the 14 policy task forces that are drawing up position papers for him on energy, foreign policy and other issues; 2) appoint no whites who are clearly unacceptable to the black community (that assurance was not explicitly stated but strongly hinted at); and 3) if elected, appoint blacks to key Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts.

Hatcher pressed a difficult demand on Carter and the other candidates. “We gave the party 25% of its vote,” said he (the figure was really close to 20%). “We want 25% of the action in the Cabinet, the convention and everywhere else.” Although blacks account for only 11% of the U.S. population, Carter gave Hatcher a remarkable reply. While refusing to be pinned down on a specific number, he said: “I think that figure [25%] may be a little high, or it may be a little low.” He at least left the clear impression that a Carter Administration would be more heavily suffused with black influence than any other in U.S. history.

Carter clearly pleased his listeners.

(“The man sure knows how to talk to black folks,” said one participant.) But some delegates held out for a campaign to slow Carter down in hopes of making the black bloc more important at the nominating convention in New York. That general impulse, diffuse and uncoordinated now, probably accounts for the rousing response to California’s Governor Jerry Brown when he appeared, along with Carter, Morris Udall and Frank Church, to address the conference.

High Expectations. The delegates cheered as Brown, 38, delivered a Kennedyesque advertisement for himself: “I represent the generation that came of age in the civil rights movement, in the antiwar Viet Nam movement… I come late, but I come unencumbered by the baggage of the last ten years. I am new.”

Many black politicians, especially on the West Coast, distrust Brown as a minimalist whose constant refrain is “People must lower their expectations.” Said California Assemblyman Willie Brown, who drives a sporty Porsche: “My expectations have not been lowered. I still want my Turbo Carrera”—a reference to a supercharged GT model with a $25,850 price tag. Nonetheless, Jerry drew cheers again when he pointed at Mervyn Dymally, California’s black Lieutenant Governor, and shouted: “If I go to Washington, he goes to Sacramento. If I’m elected President, I will appoint the first black Governor in the United States.” Unfortunately, the Governor was off on both his authority and his history. If Brown is elected President, Dymally will automatically succeed to the governorship. And during Reconstruction, P.B.S. Pinchback, a black man, served as acting Governor of Louisiana for 36 days.

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