Rallying black voters

October 19, 2004|By Derrick Jackson

MILWAUKEE, Wis. - There were about 100 middle-aged and elderly men and women, mostly African-American, in the auditorium at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society on a recent Sunday. They came to remember their stories of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s for the Voices of Civil Rights tour, a 70-day national effort by the American Association of Retired Persons, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Library of Congress.

Compared with Watts, Newark, and the Boston busing crisis, Milwaukee was a less well known but powerful fulcrum of civil rights activities in the '60s, including a school boycott and a riot. The featured speaker was Lucille Berrien, a community activist who once went to jail protesting for civil rights and who is now a grandmother of 13 children, great-grandmother of 19 children and has been a foster mother to 89 children.

Ms. Berrien exhorted the audience, to bursts of applause, to stop losing youth to the streets. She criticized both the government by calling the prison system modern-day slavery and black people themselves for allowing the enslavement.

"The problem is we don't love each other enough," she said. "If we loved them, our kids would be home. We've got kids running wild. I don't want kids running wild. But they're running wild because we don't love them enough."

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have used most of their visits to Wisconsin to try to sway suburban, small-town and rural white voters. Few if any of their stops have been to sites like this, where people understand there is work to do within their communities but need government's help in bolstering the work.

The master of ceremonies of the event, Lauri Wynn, wonders what that will mean on Election Day in a state where Democrat Al Gore won by only 6,000 votes in 2000, but where Mr. Bush has held a small lead up to now. Ms. Wynn has been an important local education figure for over three decades. In the 1970s she was president of the state teachers union. In the 1980s she was a policy adviser for black affairs to Gov. Tony Earl. In the 1990s she has been an outspoken defender of school busing and an opponent of vouchers.

She is now president of an AARP chapter, working with a vast world of seniors who do not make the 6 o'clock news, men and women retired from working-class jobs who do not know their rights in seeking medical care or prescription drugs. "These are people who receive so little information, they don't know what the hell is going on," Ms. Wynn said.

She wonders, with national security, Iraq and the economy dominating the debates, how strongly voters who care about education, housing, seniors and poverty will be motivated to vote. "I don't know," Ms. Wynn said. "Economically things are not good in the black community. But I don't know how you read that into votes. The sentiment of anybody but Bush only goes so far. There has to be something other than anybody but Bush."

A self-proclaimed newspaper junkie, she says it is obvious to her that this is one of the most important elections in many years. One of the top things on her mind is the future makeup of the Supreme Court and how that will impact abortion, school vouchers and affirmative action.

But she realizes such issues aren't yet in the forefront of the minds of many black Milwaukeeans. "This is being extremely presumptuous, but I don't think it will be a rallying point for the masses," Ms. Wynn said. "I think people care about education, and everyone knows that so much depends on education.

"I actually think both candidates care about education, even Bush in his feeble way with No Child Left Behind. I know Kerry knows a lot about education because the NEA has lobbied him. So I don't think they're deaf to concerns for public education. But with people dying in Iraq and people dying by violence at home and people being insecure about their jobs, it's not going to be at the top. The reality is that dead bodies mean more to most people right now than little squirming bodies in classrooms."

As to what might be a rallying point on Election Day, an African-American, Gwen Moore, is running for Congress, which may get more people to the polls. Ms. Wynn said Mr. Kerry can help himself by continuing to define himself as presidential as he did in his first debate with Mr. Bush.

"I don't think things are going to get better in the public schools until we have one brave soul who is going to get in there and fight to keep resources in the schools," Ms. Wynn said.

Asked whether Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry is that brave soul, Ms. Wynn said: "Bush has proved to me he is not. I'm looking for Kerry to prove he can."

Derrick Jackson is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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