The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is regarded by many as the “high water mark” in the struggle for African American political empowerment in America.
Until the adoption of this legislation, in spite of the global pronouncements about the value and importance of “Democracy”, it must be acknowledged that the opportunity for African Americans to enjoy the range of promised opportunities to participate in the political process was “spotty” at best.
In many parts of America in 1965, the ability of African American citizens to enjoy the protections and entitlements of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution were virtually nonexistent.
A half century, after the passage of 1965 Voters Rights Act, it is time for African Americans to make a serious assessment of the health, effectiveness and consequences of our post 1965 political practices and patterns of engagement. What have we gained? What have we lost and what is just hype? What does the bottom line show us, and what do the trends predict for our collective political future and empowerment?
In 2016 we are continuing to see a frantic effort in at least half of the States in this country, which is intended to severely restrict the rights of citizens to exercise the freedoms and privileges that have been secured after many years of struggle and sacrifice. Unfortunately, the clear intent of those laws is to restrict the rights Black, Brown and poor people to effectively participate in the political process. Our political gins are being systematically eroded. An issue that should be a matter of equal or even greater concern, is the fact that the United States Justice Department has not expressed any special urgency in responding to this attack on the rights and protections for Black and Brown citizens of this country. It is almost as if the loss of the rights for Black people and the systemic loss and stunting of Black Life is a kind collateral damage.
One has to ask, what has our struggle for political inclusion secured? How could it be that under the leadership of an African American President, two successive African American United States Attorney Generals, a record number of Federal Black Federal Judges and Elected Officials, the power of Black Leadership would prove to be so impotent in its ability to protect Black rights and interests? The answer to the question, upon reflection, is perhaps really quite simple.
In 1965 and in the preceding years of struggle, the movement for Black empowerment was not dependent upon establishment politics and establishment institutions as the primary mechanisms to be used in the effort to adjust our relationship to oppression and injustice. Remember in some sections of this great country people were being murdered for just attempting to organize to vote. We did not control the establishment institutions and we were wise enough not to depend exclusively on them to produce the needed remedy. Our leadership was community based and locally” ordained” before being entrusted with leadership larger collective leadership responsibility. Black leaders were as often as not politically and economically “free enough” to be unapologetic advocates for the pursuit of our freedom justice and equality. There was a high bar of expectation and an equally high expectation of responsibility, attainment and accountability. The times have radically changed. However, we seem to have forgotten that we still do not control the establishment institutions.
Today, most Black elected officials are more likely screened and selected by the “political over lords” before they are presented to the public for election. Seemingly, for the most part, after that phase of the selection process all any public office holder has to do is show up with a little sweat on his or her brow and say something like: “I tried, but I could not get it done this term”; “we do not have the votes”; “the lobbyist were just too strong”; “they changed the district lines on us”; “sometimes you just have to compromise”. In the struggle for Black Empowerment this is the vocabulary of defeatism and it symbolizes a very important flaw in our post 1965 pattern and plan of political engagement. It reflects the fact that we have almost entirely delegated the responsibility for the production of “political change” to elected officials and persons other than our communities and ourselves. It also demonstrates that we have forgotten one of the most important lessons learned from our historic struggle for empowerment. That lesson being that the success of the struggle is intertwined with the context in which the struggle takes place.
The struggle to either gain power or resist oppression is not a “single venue” performance. Similarly, neither does oppression spring from a single source. Strategies for Black empowerment, thusly, must be flexible enough to respond to a variety of contextual forces and factors. Congressman Bill Clay, the elder, is credited with having said “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests”. By disregarding this basic fact, the struggle for African American empowerment has virtually become the “slave child” of the modern electoral process. Predictably there are still no good slave masters to be found.
No people in the history of America have simply voted themselves into the circles of political power. Neither has the power to “self-determine” ever been secured by voting alone. Moreover, no people in the history of America have been able to escape the viciousness of systemic political, economic and social injustice without fostering and maintaining a conscious sense of awareness with respect to their special group identity, their group interests and their collective welfare. This requires a consistent and continuous commitment to organize, monitor and plan.
This brings me back to the challenges inherent in the current Presidential elections cycle. As our jails and prisons remain over populated with Black, Brown and poor people, as our public schools and institutions continue to fail our children and our communities for reasons that are correctable but remain uncorrected, as poor people become more sick, more poor and even less employable; we must come to realize that the central issue is not about Hillary or Donald. Neither is that issue a matter of choice regarding Democratic or Republican politics. Both candidates and both parties are profoundly flawed. Their substantive difference is “smoothness” not content. The lessor of the two evils is still very much more evil than Black folks should receive after four hundred years of unrequited loyal, dedication and under compensated service to this nation.
What is both essential and missing from the political efforts of Black Leadership to change our relationship to oppression, is a meaningful comprehensive Agenda for the Political Empowerment of Black People. Sadly, I neither see nor hear any evidence of such a development emerging any time soon. We seem to have once again delegated that critical function to the Democrats and the Republicans. Who speaks for Black Empowerment? Who but our youth dare to consistently and unapologetically speak truth to power? Too many of us seem to unwilling to defend the basic truth that Black Lives (really do) Matter. More importantly, we as Black People must be the first to insure the understanding that “All Black Lives Matter”.
Black people and Black communities cannot achieve this end unless we are prepared to take our own lead to insure the construction of that Comprehensive Agenda for Black Empowerment. If we fail to do that, Black Lives, Black Interests and Black Institutions will predictably know increased marginalization and powerlessness-even if we continue to see more Black faces in high places.