Strom and Trent Together: We Shall Not be Moved

December 19th, 2002

Strom and Trent Together: We Shall Not be Moved
Dr. Lenora Fulani

Last week was marked by two interesting events in Black politics. The first was the public spat among Black Democrats over Reverend Al Sharpton’s proposed presidential run. The other was the firestorm surrounding Mississippi Senator Trent Lott’s racist remarks at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party.

The Lott debacle first. You’ve got a good ol’ boy Republican doing what the good ol’ boys do when they get together. They reminisce about the good old days when the Negroes knew our place, but those damn liberals stuck their noses into the white man’s business and, in this particular case, tried to integrate the Armed Forces. In this case, the damned integrationist was also the Commander-in-Chief, President Harry Truman, a Democrat. So Strom, loyal son of the South that he was, turned his back on his fellow Democrats and ran for President as a Dixiecrat who pledged to maintain segregation forever.

As it turned out, Truman won, the Armed Forces were desegregated, Thurmond became a Republican, and Black people began to vote for the Democrats. That trend crescendoed when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Soon Black empowerment advocates staked out their political turf in the Democratic Party. Millions of African Americans followed.

This new Democratic voting bloc was a mixed blessing, however. In 1968 George Wallace replayed Thurmond’s strategy, broke with the Democrats and ran for the presidency as a segregationist. He got 13% of the vote and set the stage for the modern exodus of southern whites from the Democratic Party. The Democrats have been trying to get them back ever since. (Since the 1948 presidential election, the Democrats have won the White House only three times.)

In 1992 a candidate came along who knew that the Democrats needed a southern strategy to win back the white folks who’d been helping to elect Republican presidents.

His name was Bill Clinton. He and the Democratic Leadership Council ran a campaign which hammered home a not-so-subliminal message when he publicly crucified Reverend Jesse Jackson with his now infamous “Sister Souljah” remarks: Here was one white Democrat who was not going to be dictated to by Jesse Jackson and the Black community. That strategy got Clinton elected and got the Democrats back in the White House for two terms. Black folks got over being mad at Clinton for hanging us out to dry during the election. In my opinion, we should use our forgiveness a little more sparingly – not to mention intelligently.

Now some Democrats are calling for Lott’s head on a platter. He’s asking for forgiveness for his slip of the tongue. Truth be told, though I don’t care whether he is or isn’t forced out of his Senate leadership post, I feel a little sorry for Mr. Lott. He is being made to bear the brunt of 50 years of opportunistic partisan politics around America’s conflictedness over race, the Republican Party’s willingness to inflame that conflict and the Democratic Party’s inability to assert our social and economic progress in the face of entrenched racism. The political feeding frenzy is all a game. It ain’t about standing up for Black people or for decency. Both political parties gave that up a long time ago.

Enter Al Sharpton. He’s running for President in the Democratic primary. Why? Because, he says, the party has become alienated from its progressive roots and he wants to reassert that tradition. Some Democrats are worried about this – and none are more worried than the Black Democrats – notably members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). They don’t want Sharpton
to eclipse the CBC’s institutional role as the national broker of the Black vote. Towards that end, they’ve started floating a story – through Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign – that a number of Black Congresspersons might run “favorite son” campaigns in their home states so that Sharpton won’t have an unobstructed path to the Black vote.

The CBC does not want to be supplanted by a competitor. But more importantly, they’re loyal Democrats. They understand that Sharpton is a polarizing figure who, if he emerges from the primary season as a major broker, will become a symbol that the Democratic Party is too tied to the Black community. This will make trouble for the (white) eventual Democratic nominee. The racialism Lott toasted at Thurmond’s celebration is alive and well in the Democratic Party, too.

Sharpton would say that the point of his running is to overcome that racialism. Maybe he really believes that, but I doubt it. Sharpton is a smart man. I think he recognizes that his power is maximized by keeping the current dynamic in play – even if it does nothing to further the cause of Black America.

The Republicans, by the way, get this point also. That’s why President Bush distanced himself from Lott. He’ll play the part of the anti-racist (wink, wink) while Lott (whether he stays or goes) is an unsung hero to the far right.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of American politics. Two parties. A high stakes game. And Black people perpetually caught in the crossfire.

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