AT THIS summer's NAACP convention, executive director Benjamin Hooks stated that blacks may have to support President Carter next year even though most blacks don't like him. "Right now," Hooks said, "unless someone else announces in the primaries, we have no choice. The Republicans have left us with no alternative."
But blacks do have another choice. In fact, the greatest mistake they can make today is the one they are making right now: waiting to see who the two major parties nominate. A new political strategy is open to them.
To understand this strategy requires a brief review of black political history. For 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the black voter was the ward of Lincoln's Republican Party. It was not until the 1936 election that FDR was able to attract a majority of black voters to the Democratic ticket. They have remained there ever since.
Critical as their contribution may be to the Democratic coalition, blacks have had almost no influence within the party. The reason is that blacks are too loyal to the Democrats. To win elections, the Democratic Party has to make deals with big labor; it must curry favor with white ethnics; it is obliged to appease southern segregationists. But never has the Democratic Party (and particularly its presidential candidate) been unable to count on the unflincing loyalty of blacks.This Democratic lock on the black vote disenfranchises blacks as effectively as did the all-white primaries and literacy tests of a generation ago.
To end this indentured political status, blacks must take steps to become a powerful faction within the Democratic Party. As the 1980 election approaches, blacks themselves must take an early initiative. Moves in the primaries are critical because once the presidential slates of both parties are selected, blacks indeed have little choice but to vote for the Democratic nominee.
Invariably, blacks find themselves in this corner because the Republican nominee is almost always dedicated to policies inimical to the aspirations of most blacks. Well aware of the quandry of the black voter once both party nominees are determined, the strategy of the Democratic leadership has been to slide through the convention without adopting controversial civil rights platform aims that would offend labor, southern whites and northern white ethnics.
Blacks can defeat this strategy only by withholding support from any Democratic candidate until his policies on racial issues are declared and on the record. The main chance for blacks to shape ultimate presidential policy is during the primary season when Democrats can be made to compete for the black vote.
To set the stage for a wide-open contest, blacks should first encourage the candidacies of everyone in sight. This includes Jerry Brown, Scoop Jackson, Morris Udall, Hugh Carey, Adlai Stevenson, Lloyd Bentsen, Pat Moynihan, Reubin Askew and, of course, Ted Kennedy. A fundamental principle of political power is involved here. This is that any given minority wins voting strength whenever its natural allies are so divided that the support of the particular minority is necessary to build a winning coalition. Clearly, the greater the disunity within the party, the greater the strength of the black electorate.
To accomplish this, blacks must arrive at the convention with a solid bloc of delegates firmly in their control. In the past, black delegates at Democratic conventions have reached as high as 15 percent of the total. But the number of black delegates is not important. The reason for this is that black delegates in the past have been hand-picked by whites and mainly pledged to white candidates. As such, the delegates have been unable to exert any influence on behalf of many of the goals of black America.
Black political power will be firmly in place only when blacks actually control a large bloc of delegate votes. From the black point of view, ideal conditions would be the presence of a cohesive bloc of black delegates entering a completely open convention in which many candidates were seeking the nomination.
In this atmosphere, blacks, for the first time in history, would be in a position to win important commitments from the candidate who is finally selected. Before the convention balloting, black leaders would meet with the leading candidates, including Carter, offering the black delegates in return for firm assurances on executive initiatives, appointments and legislative support.
Where do blacks find the power to develop a solid bloc of controlled delegates? The secret lies in the geographic concentration of the black voter. Ironically, the slave system that concentrated large numbers of blacks in the South (50 percent of all blacks still live in the South) as well as the ghettoization of blacks in northern cities are the essential ingredients of black voting force today.
The potential for selecting black-controlled delegates is awesome. Either by primary election or caucus meeting, delegates to the national convention are awarded on the basis of the vote received usually in areas that correspond with congressional districts. There are 49 congressional districts in the nation with black populations greater than 30 percent and 80 congressional districts where the black population exceeds 20 percent of the total. Many of these districts are in northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, New York and Philadelphia, where upwards of 4 million black voters can play a dramatic role in the delegate selection process.
To develop a solid bloc of black-controlled delegates to the Democratic convention, the strategy is clear. This is to run prominent black officials as "favorite sons" in states with large black populations. Given the choice of a black candidate, blacks generally vote black. Therefore, the black favorite sons should win a sizable percentage of the black vote in congressional districts with high concentrations of black voters, and thus win an appropriate share of convention delegates allocated to that district.
For example, if blacks in Mississippi were to win a share of the delegates proportionate to their percentage of the population in each of the state's five congressional districts, they would control at least 10 of that state's 29 allocated delegates. There is a long list of primary states where black favorite sons could win a sizable number of convention delegates.
Blacks might run Rep. William Gay in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley or Rep. Ronald Dellums in California and Rep. Parren Mitchell in Maryland. Fayette Mayor Charles Evers should be the favorite son in Mississippi and Rep. John Conyers or Detroit Mayor Coleman Young in Michigan. Possibly the Rev. Jesse Jackson or the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Cardiss Collins, would be the candidate from Illinois. In Georgia, the ideal candidate would be Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, and in Ohio Rep. Louis Stokes. In New Jersey, the presumed favorite son would be Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, in Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, in Florida State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett, in New York possibly Rep. Charles Rangel or Ford Foundation head Franklin Thomas. Other black favorite sons would include New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial in Louisiana, Rep. William Clay in Missouri, Richmond Mayor Henry Marsh in Virginia and Rep. Mickey Leland in Texas.
If, in the 20 or so key states where blacks are strong, black turnouts in primary elections and attendance at party caucuses equal white levels, blacks could well arrive at the national convention armed with 300 or more controlled delegates out of the total of 3,317.So long as they maintain their solidarity, this would be a formidable show of power. Not many years ago, Mayor Daley of Chicago used to reign as a presidential kingmaker with control of a mere 100 delegates.
The prospect of success at the convention increases greatly if blacks can make successful alliances, particularly with Hispanic or other minority voters with similar policy aims. By 1985, it is expected that the Hispanic vote will be larger than the black vote. Even today, very large Spanish-American populations have immense political influence in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, New York and Texas. A successful alliance with Hispanic-Americans could easily add 100 delegates to the minority presence at the Democratic convention.
Suppose in coming months President Carter's standing markedly improves so that the black favorite-son strategy for producing black-controlled convention delegates has less prospect of success. Or suppose Sen. Kennedy declares his candidacy, presenting blacks with a candidate who many of them will find more acceptable. Do these circumstances alter the strategy we suggest?
Not at all. In 1976, blacks trusted Carter and got badly burned. The president proved himself a master at delivering black power salutes at conventions of the Black Congressional Caucus, but he was equally adept at putting in a hypocritical show of support for the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment measure, only when he knew the bill was dead. Kennedy could disappoint blacks too.
The rule of the political pragmatist must be observed. No person who seeks the presidential nomination, whether Kennedy, Carter or Coretta King, should be exempt from the sting of the black vote.