Can 15 million black women become a powerful force in national politics?
That's the question many people are asking following last weekend's meeting of the National Political Congress of Black Women. The first organization formed to give black women a platform in mainstream electoral politics and increase their political clout met at Spelman College in Atlanta.
"We are going to be a power to be reckoned with!" exclaimed former New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm to repeated cheers.
One of the reasons the group was created is that there is a clear disparity between the numerical voting strength of black women and the low percentage of public offices they hold. In the l984 presidential election, nearly 60 percent of black women voted, the highest turnout among any group in the country. Yet they make up less than one percent of elected officials. "I am disappointed that there is only one black woman in Congress," said executive committee member Shirley Wilcher of Montgomery County, referring to Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.).
Another reason for the creation of the group is the failure of the present political system to do anything to significantly improve the lot of millions of black women and children who live in abject poverty.
"Black women of this country are ready to participate in the political process to change their lot," said board member Jennifer Tucker, a local women's activist. "That's why in 10 months we were able to pull together a convention and have 450 women attending from 29 states."
More realistically, some of the goals the organization has set include registering every black woman to vote, raising money, developing political action committees and electing black women to office from the local to the national level.
To attain these goals, of course, requires money, and in addition to gaining a million members -- from welfare rolls to corporate rolls -- the group has set a fund-raising target of $10 million by the year 2000.
Following the jubilation of the group's first meeting, questions remain: Are the plans really well thought out? Can the group survive in a political system that has been dominated by white males for 209 years?
While part of the answer depends on events outside of the group's control, a great deal depends upon their leadership. Chisholm, whose chief strength is as a charismatic energizer, was elected to a two-year term as chairperson. The group's second-in-command is a wily nuts-and-bolts politician, C. Delores Tucker. If the group is to prosper, the leadership must be willing to share power with some of the new blood on the political horizon. Many young women with good academic backgrounds and bright minds were on hand in Atlanta. Their ideas and energy are crucial to the group's success, for it will be their show to run, if they are prepared, five or 10 years from now, when the imprint of this movement truly will be seen.
The independence of the group is also an issue. The close alliance of Tucker and others with Jesse Jackson has raised some questions about whether the emerging group will be able to maintain its much-needed independence or be seen as just one stripe in Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Although Chisholm often reiterates the group's independent and nonpartisan stance, Jackson not only made a 40-minute speech at a reception one evening but also returned for a 20-minute presentation at a prayer breakfast the following morning.
In one sense, it is an organization whose success will be easily measured -- in the number of voters it registers, the money it raises and the women it puts into office -- but one of the first jobs of the newly elected board will be to formulate a detailed plan for reaching those goals.
In pursuing this tremendous task, black women have in their favor a history of organizational muscle that has been developed through strong nonpolitical groups.
Whether the members of this new group are able to understand and use their political power will be another important determinant of their success. Their need for courage, patience and persistence as they hitch their wagons to such pressing priorities as education and economic development -- which will ultimately benefit the whole nation -- is also crucial.
At risk, if they fail to fasten on such goals and objectives, is the initial spirit of jubilation. If that should wane, they could become just another impotent giant on the American political landscape.