THE VIRGINIA CRUSADE for Voters, the state's most influential black voter group, is meeting today, and is expected to endorse Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb for governor. The polls indicate that Robb's lead over his Republican opponent, Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, rests largely on his support from black voters. Thus, if all holds up, come election day in the Old Dominion, the hands that once picked cotton would pick the next governor.
And what has Chuck Robb done lately for black folks in Virginia?
Well, he's made promises, some publicly and some privately, of more aid for some of the state's hard-pressed black colleges, better vocational training programs and support for extension of the Voting Rights Act. There will be black appointments, he has said to state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder and the Rev. Curtis Harris, president of the Fourth congressional District Voters League. These leaders told me Robb promised appointments to the courts, and to various boards and commissions. Robb says he will sign into law legislation making Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday -- if, of course, the General Assembly decides that now is the time to make King the only non-Virginian other than Jesus Christ to have a state-sanctioned holiday.
Unless blacks wrest some major concessions from Robb today, they may be throwing away their votes on Nov. 3, gaining little except perhaps some symbolic victories by casting a vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson's son-in-law, for LBJ's long-lost Great Society or just voting against Ronald Reagan. (Robb's Republican opponent, Coleman, is trying to run a Reagan look-a-like campaign.) Some of the votes will be delivered by old time black political operatives seeking not-too-large favors and access that will have little practical impact on the masses. Other blacks will simply pull the Democratic lever by habit -- some of them, undoubtedly, while holding their noses.
But don't blame just Chuck Robb. Power concedes nothing without a demand. Blame the state's black leadership, apathy and the low level of black voter sophistication in this state, which in the mid-1960s had the highest number of black elected officials in the South but now has the lowest.
Part of the Virginia dilemma is simply the tenor of the times, a tragic situation mirrored throughout the nation. Many blacks now are on the fringes of the political process, ignored by Republicans and taken for granted by the Democrats, lacking political leverage at a time when the real party in power is conservative -- with an emphasis on the lower case c.
Certainly there must be some deals that could be cut around more substantive issues in Virginia, like a specific million-dollar figure for black colleges, black appointments on every licensing board in the state, the governor's full weight behind a state Supreme Court justice, the bringing of industry into black communities, the expansion of housing purchase and renovation programs for low- and moderate-income people, a change in the educational formula that favors white suburbs over black cities, a cabinet-level, fully funded affirmative action officer. A bit of independence is in order, folks.
Not according to Harris of the Fourth District Voters League in Hopewell. "I can't think of much more to ask for from Robb , to be frank," he says.
Wilder of Richmond at least is hungry. "I want the moon," he says expansively. "The ABC Board, the Industrial Commission . . . . Unfortunately, a lot of it is left to trust . . . . That is the political game.
"Black leadership has not confronted Robb with, 'You take this or leave it or we will go our way.' You might say our strategy is more of a strict and measured sobriety from some old codgers like myself."
Jack W. Gravely of the Virginia NAACP, who lives in Richmond, says that "based on what I know today . . . Mr. Robb has gotten an entire football team and hasn't given up one draft choice . . . maybe a third team draft choice."
What about all those private promises from Chuckie? "Blacks should be fearful any time deals or commitments are made behind closed doors," Gravely says. "Whoever is bargaining with Mr. Robb understands this. In Virginia, a lot of black politicians are just as conservative as white politicians."
Some are proposing alternatives, like those in the Fifth congressional District Voters League in Farmville, who have named a protest write-in slate of black candidates rather than support Robb and the Democrats, or the Republicans, who appear to have written off the black vote entirely. That could be the beginning of an independent black political base.
Yet the real problem here lies with the state's black leadership, which appears to be much better at pointing fingers of blame at others in their own circle rather than getting more for the black vote it so loudly claims to represent -- the black vote that this time may decide who wins and who loses.
"They ask for a grape," says Gravely of the state's black leadership, "when they could have the whole vineyard."