today in black history

April 14, 2024

Elston Howard becomes the first Black player on the New York Yankees baseball team on this date in 1955.

Playing the Civil Rights Card

POSTED: February 15, 2016, 9:30 am

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How tragic that a transformational moment in the historic struggle to liberate Blacks in America – the civil rights movement – is being used as a wedge issue in the 2016 presidential election. The debate between the supporters of the two Democratic rivals, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, over which candidate can claim legitimacy as a champion for civil rights is absurd. The dueling reached a new low when the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), or more accurately its political action committee, announced its endorsement of Senator Clinton and civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis dismissed the notion that Sander could claim any role in the civil rights movement. His personal commitment and sacrifice beyond question, Lewis was used as a race shield by the Clinton campaign in a way that does a grave disservice to the legacy of a movement that was about democratic transformation and not electoral politics per se.

What seems to be lost in the hysteria of the moment during this campaign is recognition that the Black liberation struggle has always been about the reconstruction of this nation to reflect the ideals etched on parchment in the National Archives. From the abolitionist movement forward, the goal Black Americans shared of freedom as full citizens was not dependent upon a presidential election. While the importance of the political process has always been acknowledged by Blacks, it was the embedment of white supremacy in the governing, political and cultural institutions of America that was understood to be the great barrier to true emancipation. There was little confusion over the fact that the Founders never intended for enslaved Africans and their descendants to be on equal footing with whites or that the democratic architecture of the nation was meant to benefit Blacks. Our only hope was to fight for the total transformation of America; a generational commitment that would transcend individual political actors and elections, and require a great deal of sacrifice and suffering along the way to freedom.

This was once understood and our “leaders” sought systemic change even while weighing in on who they thought was best suited to occupy the Oval Office. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was prepared to lead a ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ no matter who was sitting in the White House. He took no comfort in the fact that a Democrat was in office and would have led the campaign if he had lived while the Nixon administration took the reins of power. Just as partisan considerations played no part in his denouncing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

We have so entangled our liberation struggle with electoral politics that presidential campaigns have become distractions; keeping us from addressing systemic racism rooted institutionally in America. This is not to suggest that presidential elections are unimportant. They are and they do have some consequences but the truth is that no president can undo the 400 plus years of layered racism that is festering in many of the institutions that impact Blacks’ daily existence. In the modern era, the debatable ‘progressive’ Democratic presidential eras of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson moved the needle for Blacks’ progress but did not wholly transform institutions. After the smoke of the battles over civil rights, voting rights and housing cleared, we were left with the same institutions buttressed by the same mores that cast us aside in that humid hall in Philadelphia over 200 years ago. And little has it mattered who was serving as President.

The point is the manner in which we exploit our struggle for partisan political advantage betrays the sacrifices of those brave souls that understood what was required was the fundamental restructuring of America. A President can effect some change but must operate within a flawed system designed to advantage a ruling elite that by history has been white, and provides residual advantage to others by their white-skin advantage if not sharing in the totality of the spoils. There is some serious deconstruction that must take place to unpack white supremacy and no presidential election alone will bring about that change. There are limits to presidential power and we have seen many instances when even the so-called “most powerful person” in the world was subdued by the checks and balances of our constitutional system.

“The point is the manner in which we exploit our struggle for partisan political advantage betrays the sacrifices of those brave souls that understood what was required was the fundamental restructuring of America.”

It is why the tit-for-tat between the Democratic presidential campaigns over civil rights is exhausting and pointless. There is a larger issue at hand and truth be told, much of the work for our own liberation must be done by us and outside the election calendar. It is why the Black Lives Matters movement is important as a means to address systemic change. By making the election of a President the end-all, we lose sight of the fact that America as presently constructed simply does not work for us. Dr. King wasn’t investing his time in 1968 in partisan politics. The civil rights leader was leading a campaign to expose the excesses of capitalism that drove many Americans, Black and white and Latino, into poverty. He was railing against the military-industrial complex and indicting the leadership of this nation, including a Democratic President, for engaging in an illegitimate war that was costing the lives of young American soldiers and innocent civilians in Southeast Asia. Dr. King was exposing the evils of northern racism and the toxic mix of race, poverty and class. And he was heeding the call of striking sanitation workers in Memphis to call attention to our moral commitment to provide workers a meaningful and family sustaining wage.

In many ways our electoral successes have given us a sort of tunnel vision. The Congressional Black Caucus endorsement of Senator Clinton runs afoul of its historic mantra – ‘No Permanent Friends. No Permanent Enemies. Just Permanent Interests.’ The irony is that the Caucus was born out of the struggle to transform the electoral process. We have become so comfortable on the inside that we are forgetting that what currently exists ‘inside’ does little to improve the quality of life for Blacks in America. And rather than make a statement for radical change, and I’m not talking about endorsing Senator Sanders, our elected leaders engage in status quo behavior that yields little for the masses. A more powerful expression for Black liberation would have been made by the Caucus if it made no endorsement but made clear what it viewed as the priorities for the next President, educated their constituents on the issues and declared to both political parties its intention to leverage its political capital to achieve its agenda. This would not preclude individual members from expressing their preferences but would keep the CBC focused on systemic change.

Yes, Blacks should vote in the primaries and in November, and yes, there are important issues at stake in this election. The most obvious is the Supreme Court; now brought into focus by the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Still, history teaches us in the experience of the Warren Court that sometimes the behavior of the high Court defies prediction. Our best bet is to elect someone to the presidency who approximates our ethos with the understanding that we need to get our scholars, activists and social architects working on the new design for a new America.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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