On April 30, 1992, Bill Bradley strode to the podium of the US Senate. The previous night, riots had erupted in Los Angeles following a not-guilty verdict in the first Rodney King trial. With a state of emergency under way in America’s second-largest city, Bradley, the former New York Knicks basketball star, first elected to the Senate in 1978, was looking to underscore the injustice of the jury’s decision. He also realized this was an important moment for himself. Nine months earlier, Bradley had delivered a pair of much-noticed speeches pronouncing race to be a defining issue in American society. He had bemoaned the high rates of child poverty and unemployment in the African-American community. Citing his own experience as a white man in a black man’s world, he had chastised the nation for not confronting racial tensions. He had slapped liberals for failing “to emphasize hard work, self-reliance and individual responsibility,” and conservatives for failing “to use the power of government for the common good.” The country, he had declared, must “begin an honest dialogue about race in America.”
Now, with South Central LA smoldering, Bradley referred to the blows King had received from the police: “Fifty-six times in eighty-one seconds.” Bradley then took six pencils fastened together with rubber bands and banged the makeshift baton against the podium. “Pow,” he said. He banged again. “Pow.” Another bang. “Pow.” Fifty-six times: “Pow, pow, pow…” Showing his anger, he said, “If we as a nation continue to ignore the racial reality of our times…we’re going to pay an enormous price…. the fire the next time is going to engulf all of us.”
It was a powerful moment, probably the most emotive one in the career of a quiet legislator known more for studying tax law arcana than for producing memorable rhetoric. The performance made Nightline. In New Jersey, the state Bradley represented, the Rev. Reginald Jackson, a board member of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, was impressed with Bradley’s dramatic remarks, as he had been with his previous speeches on race. Jackson eagerly waited for Bradley to make good on his passion.
But, Jackson says, “It never came to that.” The reverend saw little follow-up action. “Senator Bradley is right on target with his diagnosis and observations, but there’s concern over whether he’s engaged in the struggle,” notes Jackson, who now leads the ministers’ group. “He can articulate the thing. But we want to see him act on his words.” In the two decades that Reverend Jackson has been involved with civil rights work in New Jersey, Bradley, he says, has visited with the Black Ministers Council only once or twice: “He doesn’t come into the community, meet with its leadership, say, ‘What can I do?'” These days, as Bradley raises racial issues while challenging Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination (“If I’m President I want one thing to be known: If you want to please the boss, one of the things you’d better show is how your department or agency has furthered tolerance and racial understanding,” Bradley has said), Jackson wonders why Bradley, whom he admires, has not gone beyond speechifying. “I’m sure he believes racial profiling is wrong,” Jackson says, referring to the controversy that ensued after New Jersey state troopers were found to be searching the cars of blacks at a much higher rate than those of whites. “But we don’t see him engage. We don’t see him meeting with the state attorney general or governor and proposing steps to end it. What he says comes from the heart, but people would rather see a sermon than hear a sermon.” Jackson is leaning toward Gore.