Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Unity and Class Issues in the Black Community, Part II

Properly understood, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the most democratic episodes in American political history. There was no script written by some great playwright in the sky, handed out in communities across the country. There was no universally acknowledged director, no head of central casting, and no formal audition process. The relationships between leaders and followers were often fluid.

Compared to earlier socio-political movements — the Abolitionist, Women’s Suffrage, Labor — the civil rights movement was considerably more organic, decentralized, communal, and emergent. Much of its strength, brilliance, and resilience came from a shared set of ideals and a growing belief in the possibility of change.

It is fair to say that during the movement there was a more dynamic symbiotic relationship between whoever was leading at the moment and the masses of black people and their allies. It was often messy and it certainly wasn’t perfect; nonetheless there seemed to be a widely shared understanding that followers were as important as leaders.

A major consequence of the civil rights era was an opening of the political sphere to broader participation by black people as both voters and consequently as elected officials. In the aftermath of Movement success, the number of black elected officials holders has increased from fewer than 1500 in 1970 nationwide to more than 10,500 today.  There are about eighty African American elected public officials in Cuyahoga County alone today, and possibly a few hundred in the State as a whole.

What is less clear is how this apparent political power has operated to advance the community in whose name it has been sought and wielded. Some observers argue that black political leadership is by and large disconnected from the community. It is no longer axiomatic, if it ever was, that black political leaders are of, from and for the people.

Compounding the analysis is a series of demographic and geographic changes that no longer concentrate a vast majority of African Americans within a single political boundary. Does it make a difference to be a black elected official when ten or twenty or fifty or eighty percent of your constituency is nonblack? What impact has this had on the fact that poor Americans of all colors and stripes have been virtually dropped from the political discussion?

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