Fall election is shaping up as historic test

May 25, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

They gave us the bullet to save themselves; they will give us the ballot to save themselves.

- Frederick Douglass

Unfortunately, the nation did not feel as indebted to black Americans as Douglass suggested it would. Perhaps the great ex-slave orator, abolitionist and native Marylander was not as confident as he sounded. He may have found it more politic to suggest that white America would do the right thing if only to repay black soldiers who fought on the Union side.

But there was no immediate indication Americans believed their system was endangered by withholding the franchise. Even after that was officially remedied by the 15th Amendment, Jim Crow kept black people out of polling places.

When the vote did come to blacks in Maryland, according to the scholar Margaret Law Callcott, they turned out in numbers roughly equivalent to whites. A number of civic leagues were formed to promote greater understanding of the democratic process among those who were only recently freed from bondage.

An appetite for participation may have dated from a time when, decades before the Civil War, black people with property were allowed to vote in Maryland. Whatever remained of that civic impulse, however, must have been blunted by repeated efforts to disenfranchise blacks in 1905, 1908 and 1910. In each case, the initiative failed, but many powerful leaders pushed it.

Over time, more Americans have realized the underlying truth of Douglass' warning: There is no real democracy if the vote is not available to all.

At the same time, black Americans have been challenged to believe that voting matters to them in their daily lives, that casting a ballot will make them part of a system that historically has treated them as outsiders. This recognition has grown as more and more black men and women have been elected.

For this reason, among others, the 2008 election will be a watershed. As in the 1980s, when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson ran for president, black voters are prepared to vote in great numbers this year. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama appears to be generating the same or greater voting ardor among blacks.

As the country continues to evolve in its racial attitudes, whites are - perhaps in historic numbers - prepared to vote for a black candidate. The test will surely come if, as now seems likely, Mr. Obama is the Democratic candidate.

As always, there will be other considerations as voters make up their minds: age, experience, vision, energy and so forth. Still, the country is poised for a new measurement of black involvement in the Democratic process.

In an obvious sense, that calculation arrives with the cerebral-rock-star candidacy of Mr. Obama, who has weathered some bracing tests in the primaries and will be scrutinized even more vigorously if he is his party's candidate.

Vestiges of black and white skepticism remain, to be sure. Many Obama backers have worried - and some are certain - that a way will be found to wrest the nomination away from him. Here, though, the veiled warning from Frederick Douglass may finally be recognized, among Democrats, at least: If he wins the necessary delegate votes under the rules and is nevertheless denied the nomination, his party would surely suffer.

In that light, it is instructive to see a renewed interest in voting rights as a top priority of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP's new president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, says his organization will work hard to turn out the vote this fall.

"We need to make sure we have sufficient resources to help turn out voters in November. I don't care who they vote for. They need to vote. We need to make sure the NAACP has the resources it needs to be a powerful mobilizer of black voters this fall," he said.

There may be a parallel between the tasks faced by Mr. Jealous and Senator Obama. The 35-year-old NAACP leader says: "Across the country, people in my generation have checked out from this organization, and this is my day to say to them: 'Check back in.'"

Barack Obama, echoing Frederick Douglass, has said something similar, and many have responded.

C. Fraser Smith's column appears Sundays in The Sun. His book "Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights In Maryland" will be published in June by the Johns Hopkins University Press. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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