In post-King era, blacks have both gains, setbacks

JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

April 03, 1993|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The 25th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a reminder of how much -- and how little -- the role of black Americans in politics has changed.

The most obvious difference is in the rise of so many prominent black elected officials to speak for other blacks. When King died in Memphis in April 1968, the politicians with the most influence in the black community were white -- Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, John V. Lindsay and Nelson A. Rockefeller, to name the most prominent.

No one who was with Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis the night of King's death will forget the rapport he enjoyed with the black audiences with whom he pleaded for calm.

Today, by contrast, there is a black governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, and such prominent black mayors as Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, Michael White of Cleveland, David Dinkins of New York, Norman Rice of Seattle, Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore and Richard Arrington of Birmingham, Ala. And there is, of course, the one civil rights figure who became a political figure first and foremost, Jesse Jackson.

By now, however, there are few white politicians with anything approaching the relationship with blacks that Kennedy or Humphrey enjoyed. Simply the passage of time has meant that there are few political leaders who were in the trenches with the civil rights movement when the transforming change in the American ethic was accomplished.

In the South, in particular, the change has been a product of one of King's greatest accomplishments -- the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law that allowed Southern blacks to force their way to influence in at least some relationship to their numbers in the electorate.

Indeed, one of the ultimate proofs of the gains in black strength in the South is that blacks now feel free to enjoy the luxury of competing among one another for political advancement. Just last Tuesday, for example, there were four blacks of some prominence struggling for a congressional nomination to succeed a black man -- Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy -- in a Mississippi district in which blacks feared to register before King and his allies paved the way.

For all of this progress at one level, however, there is still much evidence of how far blacks have to go to be fully integrated into the political process. They are still regarded by many, perhaps most, political professionals as a distinct constituency to be dealt with -- or not -- depending on how relationships with them will affect the white community.

Thus, candidate Bill Clinton kept a distance from the black community during the 1992 campaign despite a long history of a good relationship with black leaders in Arkansas that assured him most of their support. Clinton advanced proposals that blacks could embrace, but he made it plain in the way he campaigned that he did not want the perception of him as a favorite of blacks to interfere with the business of winning white blue-collar voters.

This is the core of the problem for blacks in American politics today. So much time has passed that fewer whites have first-hand memories of the civil rights movement and the reason the nation needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then that voting law the following year. Meanwhile, the reaction among whites to affirmative action programs and the costs of welfare programs has given rise to an element of racial resentment that shapes many political decisions in the Democratic Party.

This phenomenon is clearest in some Southern states -- South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama are examples -- where the Democratic Party is viewed as "the black party" and thus not acceptable for many conservative white voters who otherwise would share the party's economic agenda. In those cases, the Democratic candidate who becomes too closely identified with black leaders often pays a politically fatal price in statewide elections.

On the national level, there is something similar in the relationship between even liberal white Democrats and Jesse Jackson. The civil rights leader is considered such a red flag to whites that Clinton went to great lengths to distance himself from him last year.

A quarter of a century after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the black Americans whom he championed hold much more political power than they did in his day. But it is power that still falls far short of the dream he described in those days.

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