Stories and Legends | The Nation


Stories and Legends

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But black militancy was only one thread of post-'60s black politics, even if, because of its rhetoric, its proponents dominated the airwaves. From the 1960s onward, many of the most influential and effective black politicians were—by disposition and necessity—coalition builders. Mostly forgotten in political accounts of the civil rights era was Edward Brooke, a black Massachusetts Republican, who won election to the US Senate in 1966, at a moment of extraordinary racial tension in a 97 percent white state. That summer, Stokely Carmichael uttered the famous words "black power"; welfare rights activists demonstrated at the Massachusetts Statehouse; and antibusing activists Pixie Palladino and Louise Day Hicks won widespread support in Boston's Irish and Italian neighborhoods. Yet Brooke distanced himself from Massachusetts's racially polarized politics; most notably, he distanced himself from Carmichael and convinced suburban and small-town whites that he was a good-government, fiscally responsible candidate. As a result, he won by a comfortable margin, picking up many Democratic voters, even if he lost big among Boston's bitter blue-collar whites, whose votes he did not need because of the breadth of his coalition. As a Republican, Brooke was an outlier among black politicians, but many of them shared his challenge: how to win office in majority-white jurisdictions.


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Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of...

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In the three decades after Brooke's election, sixty-seven cities with populations over 50,000 elected black mayors, nearly all of them members of the Democratic Party. Most of those cities were majority white. Many black leaders—even those with origins in the controversial community control and black power movements of the 1960s—forged coalitions across racial lines, although an admixture of racism and antiliberalism kept most of them from winning a white majority. In 1973 Tom Bradley won election as mayor of Los Angeles, a city with a relatively small black population (only 17.7 percent of the city's inhabitants) and still struggling with the divisive legacy of the 1965 Watts riot. In 1983 Wilson Goode, who had started his career as a community organizer with funds from the War on Poverty, was elected mayor of Philadelphia, a majority-white city, with the support of almost a quarter of white voters. Blacks won elected office, with white support, in many other majority-white cities, among them New Haven and Denver.

Black electoral gains (outside the majority-minority districts created after the Voting Rights Act of 1965) were slower to come in the South, but there, too, black politicians who aspired to statewide office forged successful interracial electoral coalitions. In 1983 voters in Charlotte, North Carolina, a majority-white city and bastion of the New New South, a place with its own deep divisions over civil rights and school desegregation, put moderate black businessman Harvey Gantt into the mayor's office. In an intensely polarized race for the US Senate in 1990, Gantt barely lost to incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, who rallied his supporters by playing to fears of racial quotas and white job loss. Virginia, once capital of the Confederacy, elected a black Democratic governor, Douglas Wilder, in 1989. Both of these candidates shifted to the right of their black constituents, positioning themselves as probusiness and socially moderate, assuming correctly that they would lose little black support while gaining white support. Wilder crossed the racial divide, and Gantt nearly did, both in states with long histories of racial animosity.

 On the national level, too, the gap between Moses and Joshua was blurry. African-American women, many of them coalition builders, played a decisive role in reconfiguring liberal politics. Shirley Chisholm, elected to Congress from Brooklyn in 1968, became the first African-American Democratic candidate for president. In 1976 Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan delivered a celebrated keynote address nominating Jimmy Carter (whose centrist presidential candidacy, it should be noted, was ardently supported by alleged race-baiters, such as Coleman Young). Chisholm and Jordan did not get very far nationally, not because they were politicians steeped in the race-conscious identity politics of the civil rights years but because the majority of white voters were unwilling to cross the racial and gender divide.

No one better embodied the syncretic nature of black electoral politics than Harold Washington, a candidate who came up through the Chicago machine but then broke from it to run as a reform candidate and get elected as the city's first black mayor in 1983, less than two years before Obama started his Chicago organizing career. Washington fashioned a dual strategy for victory: he appealed to the racial pride and grievances of his black constituents while reaching out to an interracial constituency. He came to office amid a black urban backlash against the Reagan administration, whose economic policies had worsened inner-city economies, whose "New Federalism" led to a steady reduction in urban spending and whose challenges to affirmative action and welfare reinforced racial stereotypes. Washington swept to victory in large part because of the huge turnout among his African-American base—after a massive voter registration campaign, 85 percent of Chicago's eligible black voters cast their ballots.

But Washington was not just the "black candidate" or the "black mayor," even if, in racially polarized Chicago, black voters overwhelmingly supported him and the vast majority of white voters opposed his candidacy vehemently. More than 80 percent of Chicago's whites—who were preponderantly Democrats—broke party ranks and supported Republican Bernard Epton, bringing him within thousands of votes of victory in 1983. But Washington drew support from Chicago's rapidly growing Latino population and from white liberals who provided him with campaign funds and enough votes to put him over the top.

As mayor, Washington rewarded his supporters, especially African-Americans, with positions in his administration, even though Chicago's infamous "council wars," led by powerful, race-baiting alderman "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, held up many mayoral appointments. But at the same time Washington surrounded himself with an interracial team of advisers, including two figures who would later be members of Obama's inner circle: David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. Washington also made peace with leading white politicians (endorsing Richard M. Daley, his onetime opponent and son of the longtime machine leader, and Aurelia Pucinski, daughter of powerful Congressman and white ethnic spokesman Roman Pucinski, in their bids for Cook County offices). And he worked to overcome the suspicion of Chicago's business elite by cutting the city's payroll, reducing the city's debt and restoring its favorable credit rating. As a consequence, Chicago's black nationalists—many of whom had enthusiastically supported his candidacy—charged him with "accommodationism." Washington's ability to build coalitions while simultaneously appealing to his black base was the key to his victory, just as it would be for Obama a quarter-century later.

The political potency of black consciousness left a deep impression on Obama. He observed that Chicago's blacks talked about the mayor "with a familiarity and affection normally reserved for a relative." It was Harold, not Mayor Washington (just as it had been Martin, Malcolm, Huey and Jesse—and, twenty years later, in barbershops, churches and the black blogosphere, it would be Barack). Black loyalty to Washington was, in part, a matter of group pride, but also a matter of self-interest. Political power brought real economic benefits to urban blacks. By the 1960s, the public sector had become an important avenue of upward mobility for black workers, even if they had been confined mostly to unskilled, bottom-of-the-rung jobs like sanitation work. In many cities, including Chicago, municipal jobs were unionized and secure, with generous health and pension benefits, and they provided a compelling alternative to rapidly disappearing manufacturing work. But black workers were not satisfied with entry-level, manual labor. Empowered by the civil rights movement—and its call for jobs, dignity and freedom—they demanded inclusion in better-paying, mostly white firefighting, police, teaching and clerical jobs. And black businesses demanded access to lucrative city contracts. Like other black mayors, Washington hired more black workers, expanded affirmative action programs and extended more contracts to minority-owned firms, in the process undoing years of machine neglect.

For all of his affinities to Washington, Obama expressed ambivalence about one of Chicago's most visible black politicians. Writing shortly after Washington's untimely death in 1987, just months into his second term in office, Obama hailed Washington's willingness to stand up to Chicago's machine leaders. But rather than understanding Washington as a coalition builder, he portrayed him as the embodiment of race-conscious politics, noting "the surge of political empowerment around the country" that had fired up black voters. But for Obama, the "only principle that came through" during Washington's administration was "getting our fair share," namely, efforts to use the power of the mayoralty for black group advancement, and that did not suffice. Obama was skeptical that black political power, like Washington's mayoralty, would have anything more than "an important symbolic effect." What Obama left out was perhaps the most important part of Washington's relatively progressive policy: his efforts to channel community development block grants to neighborhood groups, to shift development dollars toward the construction of affordable housing and to increase capital spending to improve the city's poor and working-class neighborhoods. Each of these initiatives met with significant resistance, from developers and planners who favored large-scale downtown redevelopment and from Washington's opponents among the aldermen. Overall, Obama echoed analysts who viewed the black ascent to urban power as a "hollow prize," the dubious triumph of taking over local governments just as jobs were disappearing, population steadily declining and tax revenue plummeting. City jobs for black Chicagoans were not enough to stem the effects of decades of disinvestment. Pinstripe patronage for black entrepreneurs would not benefit the poor. And the problems facing urban residents were larger than any single elected official could solve.


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