Back then, a half century ago, the wholesale racial integration required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act was just beginning to chip away at discrimination in education, jobs and public facilities. Black voters had only obtained legal protections two years earlier, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act was about to become law.
African-Americans were only beginning to move into neighborhoods, colleges and careers once reserved for whites only.
I’m too young to remember those days. But hearing my parents talk about the late 1960s, it sounds in some ways like another world. Numerous African-Americans now hold positions of power, from mayor to governor to corporate chief executive – and, yes, once upon a time, president. The U.S. is a very different place than it was in 1968.
Or is it? As a scholar of minority politics, I know that while some things have improved markedly for black Americans in the past 50 years, today we are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King did in his day.
A year before his death, Dr. King and others began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
Ralph Abernathy, an African-American minister, led the way in his fallen friend’s place.
“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy said, “and we will stay until we get it.”
This is now
So, how far have black people progressed since 1968? Have we gotten our fair share yet? Those questions have been on my mind a lot this month.
Financial security, too, still differs dramatically by race. Black households earn $57.30 for every $100 in income earned by white families. And for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04.
Another troubling aspect about black social progress – or should I say the lack thereof – is how many black families are headed by single women. In the 1960s, unmarried women were the main breadwinners for 20 percent of households. In recent years, the percentage has risen as high as 72 percent.
Black Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they were in 1968. Currently, almost 40 percent of African-Americans are poor enough to qualify for welfare, housing assistance and other government programs that offer modest support to families living under the poverty line.
Depending on who you ask, then, black people aren’t much better off than in 1968 because either there’s not enough government help or there’s way too much.
What would MLK do?
I don’t have to wonder what Dr. King would recommend. He believed in institutional racism.
In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with the Economic Bill of Rights. This was not a legislative proposal, per se, but a moral vision of a just America where all citizens had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land,” “a meaningful job at a living wage” and “a secure and adequate income.”
To achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment,” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for black Americans. He also recommended “another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
Those ideas were revolutionary in 1968. Today, they seem prescient. King’s notion that all citizens need a living wage portends the universal basic income concept now gaining traction worldwide.
King’s rhetoric and ideology are also obvious influences on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 presidential primaries advocated equality for all people, economic incentives for working families, improved schools, greater access to higher education and for anti-poverty initiatives.
Progress has been made. Just not as much as many of us would like. To put it in Dr. King’s words, “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
Florida’s midterm Senate election is a race to watch this November – and not just because it will be a tight match pitting a sitting governor, Republican Rick Scott, against a sitting senator, Democrat Bill Nelson.
Florida is home to the country’s largest foreign-born black population. One in three black Miami metropolitan region residents today is an immigrant, according to the Pew Research Center. Many are from the Caribbean.
I have studied voting patterns of African-Americans, Cape Verdeans and West Indians in four cities: Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York City.
I discovered that while these populations are mostly Democratic, foreign-born black communities in all four cities are more willing than African-Americans to put aside partisan differences and vote Republican.
Haitians, in particular, lean in a more conservative direction than African-Americans and other Caribbean communities. My research found that Haitian voters in Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York City are more likely to identify as moderate or conservative than African-Americans.
Haitians are also more likely to be members of the Republican Party and to run for office as Republicans. The first and only Haitian-American in Congress, Mia Love of Utah’s 4th district, is a Republican.
In Florida, almost 4 percent of the Haitian-born population is Republican, according to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. Just under 20 percent of Florida’s Haitian Americans are Democrats. Many others are not registered voters in the U.S., though they may remain active in Haitian politics.
As I outline in my book, Celestin’s campaign appealed directly to Haitian voters in this municipality of 60,000, by arguing that they needed their own political representation in a largely African-American city historically governed by white elected officials.
The 2001 election brought not just Celestin to power but also put a Haitian-American majority onto the five-member city council, ushering in a new era in North Miami politics. Haitian voters had successfully replaced the city’s old white political leadership with new black leadership.
All of this means that neither Florida Senate candidate should take black voters for granted in November.
Nelson, the Democratic sitting senator, has tradition on his side. Black Floridians – like African-Americans nationwide – have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in every election since 1948. In 2012, higher-than-usual black turnout for Barack Obama helped Nelson handily secure his second Senate term.
Florida’s Trinidad-born Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll was the first black female Republican elected to the Florida legislature and the first black Republican woman on a statewide ticket when she ran as Scott’s running mate in 2010.
Scott alienates black voters
Carroll resigned in 2013 amid accusations of financial impropriety. She later wrote a book accusing Scott of treating her like an “unwanted stepchild” and using her to win black and female votes.
Last May, Stacey Abrams, an African-American, 44-year-old former attorney, Georgia General Assembly House minority leader and Yale Law graduate beat former attorney white Georgia state legislator Stacey Evans in the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary. While the race was hard-fought, the outcome was lopsided with Abrams winning 423,163 (76.5 percent) votes over Evans’ 130,234.
Although Georgia is known for infamous, segregationist governors like Lester Maddox, this campaign which pitted a white woman against a black woman was largely absent of overt racial appeals. The campaigns of both women appealed to liberals and moderates. Evans’ campaign strategy heavily focused on building a coalition among African-Americans, Latinos, women, youth and other progressives by emphasizing issues such as educational and job opportunities, voting rights and an end to crime.
Abrams campaign platform was remarkably similar, but she also emphasized the need for LGBTQ rights, energy jobs, veterans’ rights and small business development. Abrams benefited from the “linked fate” philosophy among African-Americans that influences them to prefer black candidates because of their interests in advancing their individual and group interests. She also had more experience registering voters than Evans did, after having served as the director of the New Georgia Project that registered thousands of black, Latino and Asian-American Georgia residents who usually don’t vote.
History in the making?
This “battle of the two Staceys” was historic because two women competed as major contenders in a Georgia gubernatorial primary for the first time in its history.
Abrams becomes the first female nominee and the first black nominee of a major party for a Georgia governor’s race. If she wins in November, her victory will add to the small number of women who have served as state governors, the even smaller number of African-Americans, and she will become the first black female governor of any American state.
There have only been four black governors in American history. In 1872, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a Republican, served as Louisiana governor for 34 days while incumbent governor, Henry Warmoth, faced impeachment.
Nearly half of American states have never had a female governor. Forty-six women are running for governor this year, which is much more than the previous record of 34 female gubernatorial candidates in 1994.
In the 2017 Alabama U.S. Senate race, the 98 percent black female vote for Doug Jones tipped the scales of the election in his favor and allowed him to defeat Roy Moore.
The key question that remains after the euphoria over the historic significance of having a serious black female contender for governor is, “What does this mean for Donald Trump?” If Georgia elects a black female governor who has the ability to mobilize black, female, progressive, young and other minority voters, will it tip Georgia’s scales from the red side to the blue side?