Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Black Political Leadership in Cleveland and Civil Rights, Part I
The trio of deaths we noted here last week continue to trigger a number of thoughts. Unsurprisingly, most of the media coverage has centered on Steve Jobs, a contemporary whose impact was obvious and whose accomplishments were tangible: millions of us are daily users of the products he envisioned and developed.
Still, for other millions, the accelerating passage of senior civil rights leaders is cause for pause on how American public and private lives were changed by the service and sacrifice those leaders rendered our nation.
It’s not important to compare whose impact mattered more. But last week’s passing of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and attorney Derrick Bell does underscore two separate but related topics that have been on the northeast Ohio horizon this month: civil rights and black leadership.
Two days ago, Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin penned one of his patented “insider” columns purporting to show that a trio of old black men — Lou Stokes, George Forbes, and Arnold Pinkney — still run black politics in Cleveland.
The piece repulsed the senses on so many levels that it is difficult to know how to begin to dismantle its nasty influence. Larkin argued that the men who were the go-to guys in the black political community forty years ago are still the same go-to guys today. But the column omitted salient details and provided no context to those who don't have a thorough understanding of Cleveland political history.
It is misleading to write about Cleveland’s black community and its alleged rigid and unyielding political structure without ever noting their place in the larger community’s hierarchical rigidity. The history of twentieth century Cleveland is the history of a top-down community run by an interlocking directorate of corporate bosses and white-shoe lawyers who worked hand-in-glove with whatever ethnic politicians happened to be in charge. Then and now, a principal responsibility of the Plain Dealer was to support this closed circle of dominance and control.
Column Intermission: A few years ago I attended an annual meeting of The Roundtable, one of a string of establishment organizations ostensibly designed to promote noteworthy civic objectives like economic inclusion, corporate diversity and the like.  On stage were three key figures: Danny Williams, the group’s president; Jane Campbell, the city’s mayor, and uber-lawyer and grey eminence Dick Pogue. The mayor had just cracked one of her characteristically bad jokes, attempting to make light of Pogue’s longevity at the seat of power; when Pogue ad-libbed aloud to the effect that he was still running the show, Campbell quickly beat a sheepish retreat. In Cleveland, the dominance of commercial interests over public welfare has been virtually unending.
But this is America, so when color enters the picture, stuff happens. People lose their critical faculties. They pontificate about politics in the black community as if all black folks were still stuffed in eastside ghettos. They make no mention of the fact that there are more than 80 elected black officials in Greater Cleveland, most of whom live outside the city limits where new and in some cases more sophisticated manifestations of black power are developing. Most of these 80 elected officials seldom if ever consult with Stokes, Forbes or Pinkney.
The day is long gone when a small group of black politicians could say they spoke for the black community. In fact, it is debatable whether a solidly black electorate even exists, and whether that is a good or bad thing either way. But that’s grist for another mill.
Consider this about current black leadership: the black political establishment did march almost in lockstep in opposition to Issue 6 in 2009. Their counsel was overwhelmingly rejected in every ward and jurisdiction with one exception: Ward 1, the political base of state senator Nina Turner. She was a flag-bearer for Issue 6. But Issue 6 lost in Ward 1. This means that black leadership counsel was universally rejected on the most important local issue in 40 years.
That Stokes, Forbes and Pinkney remain active so active in local political discussion is largely due to indolence, inertia, and lack of imagination. Pundits such as Larkin, public officials like Speaker Batchelder call upon Forbes and Pinkney because they always have. Their primary concern is to not be accused of failing to check in with the black community. Forbes and Pinkney profit from the fiction of their continued political ascendancy.
The world has changed. The county has changed. The black community, however defined, has changed. The model of black political leadership that the Plain Dealer and perpetuates is obsolete and does a disservice to us all. It has been withering for decades. Tomorrow I will describe its disintegration.
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 A predecessor group was called BICCA [Businessmen’s Interracial Committee on Community Affairs]; the current incarnation is the Commission on Economic Inclusion housed at the Greater Cleveland Partnership.