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What happened to Black Power?
By Lee Hubbard, 23 November 1998
It was a hot sweltering day in Mississippi in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael raised a clinched fist shouting "Black Power." Although Congressman Adam Clayton Powell was among the first to utter these words, Carmichael's words were a defining moment that orchestrated a change in the civil rights movement. It was after his declaration, that the civil disobedience that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached began to decline, and the overwhelming consciousness of "Black Power" crept into the everyday lives of black people in America.
This consciousness could be seen in the wearing of Afros, to slogan's such as "Black is Beautiful," and "I'm black and I am proud," to the greeting of a clinched black fist. While some blacks talked about revolution, others talked about politics and elections. While the revolution talkers gathered media attention with inflammatory rhetoric of ending America, black talkers of politics and elections, saw Black Power as a way to advance in American society just like other ethnic groups such as the Irish, Polish, and Italians.
It was during this time that Black Power became a reality for black people. In 1967, Carl Stokes ushered in the first era of black mayors, becoming the first black mayor Cleveland, Ohio and the first black mayor of a major city. Shortly after Stokes was elected, Richard Hatcher, Gary, Indiana's first black mayor was ushered into office in 1967. When Hatcher got elected, he said that "logic of Black Power" was irrefutable, and that his election would "break the shackles of graft corruption, inefficiency, poverty, racism and stagnation."
Today, Hatcher's words sound naive and idealistic, but to a power starved people that had suffered for so long, his words at that time, helped to soothe souls.
"The first generation of black mayors came in with a nationalist mandate," said Dr. Ron Walters, a professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland. "Black Power gave them a mandate dealing with the empowering the African American Community in regards to public policy and distribution of resources."
Dr. Manning Marable, a professor History at Columbia University said one of the effects of this Black Power, which began in the late 1960's and lasted into the 1980's, could be seen in the numbers of black elected officials.
"In 1964, the number of black mayors in the United States was zero," said Dr. Marable. Today the number is over 400. The number in congress back then was 5 and today it is 40. The number of black elected officials back then was 100 nationwide and today it is close to 10,000."
Although there are more black elected officials today, than at any other time in American history, there is still a sense of hopelessness in many of the urban areas of America. This has led to a "political malaise" according to Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the author of the "Crisis in Black in Black."
"There is a sense that just changing the face doesn't change the substance of the situation," said Dr. Hutchinson.
Around the time that the election of black elected officials began picking up steam, a radical change in America's industries took place. Many of the manufacturing jobs in various industries began to leave the cities, and jobs that had brought a large majority of blacks into the middle class began leaving the cities.
Along with the flight of capital out of the cities, "there was a flight out of the cities of the federal government's responsibility" said Dr. Walters, and "they (Black Mayors) had to do more with less."
This restructuring created massive unemployment in the inner cities, and a low morale in black communities, that transferred the heavy burdens that black mayors had on being a first, into unrealistic expectations that black mayors couldn't start to answer.
"When blacks got into power, not only did the economic infrastructure leave the cities, but the political framework became more heavily scrutinized," said Dr. Cobie Harris, a Black History and Political Science Professor at San Jose State University.
Dr. Hutchinson said that it was during this time that black voters realized that black elected officials aren't urban messiahs, and some of them were just like white elected officials. Once this reality set it, this led towards a disillusioned attitude towards politics for some black people.
Today, many of these areas that elected black mayors in the past, such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, have know elected white mayors. This is even taking place in black strong holds, where blacks are in the majority in places such as Oakland, California which is over 40 percent black and Gary, Indiana, which is 85 percent black.
"I was asking what had happened, and it was clear to me that they were so frustrated that they were reaching out to anybody to change the situation," said Dr. Walters, regarding Gary, Indiana, but some would say this also applies to what took place in Oakland, California.
OAKLAND-A CASE STUDY IN THE LOSS OF BLACK POWER.
When Jerry Brown raises his hand to become Oakland's next mayor, in January of 1999, it will be a paramount event in Oakland history. When the former California Governor announced his candidacy for the cities top post, many of the people had written him off as a political has been, a limousine liberal and a carpet-bagger, who hadn't been an Oakland native for more than three years.
Shannon Reeves, the president of Oakland's NAACP and a mayoral candidate who finished third, was one of those who felt Brown was out of touch with the times.
"When Jerry Brown was governor, crack cocaine didn't exist," said Reeves, during the campaign. "When he was governor, drive by shootings didn't exist. He may have been a good Governor in the 1970's but we are two years away from 2000, and Jerry Brown's time has passed."
Reeves wasn't the only one who thought Brown was a political has been. Although he had name recognition, many people felt that Brown's act wouldn't play well in a majority black city, set on holding onto the political power it had achieved during the civil rights and Black Power eras. But as the campaign wore on, this talk began to change as Brown out hustled, and out campaigned his 10 challengers, 8 of whom were black.
"Jerry Brown campaigned like he was the ugly guy trying to get the pretty girl," said Dave 'Davey D' Cooks, who lives in Oakland, and is the talk show host on KMEL's Street Knowledge show. "He couldn't get her on his looks, but he had to be persistent and that's what he was. The other candidates sold themselves short and didn't stomp the way they should have. They didn't pay attention to what was happening, and at the end of the day, either people didn't vote for them, or they voted for Brown."
Although he was very shallow on how he would orchestrate change, Brown won the city vote with 58.7 percent of the vote and thus avoided a run off. He won Oakland's white vote, which was expected, but Brown also won a majority of the black vote.
Oakland had been home to a black mayor since 1977, when Lionel Wilson stepped into office and he ushered in the first wave of black politicians in Oakland. Wilson was a judge and a consensus builder, who made sure that people who had been left out, were able to get a piece of the pie.
It was during his tenure that he implemented a broad based Affirmative Action in city hiring and contracting that helped to build upon Oakland's black middle-class. Oakland became a hub of black culture on the West Coast and this created a black population increase of 31 percent from 1970 to today, while the white population left the city with a decrease of 43 percent from 1970 to today.
While Wilson was just getting used to his job, the industrial work force in Oakland changed and left. Stores that once lined the streets of down town Oakland had left, leaving Oakland without a retail center. Workers from Oakland that worked at General Motors in Union City and Ford in Milpitas were out of luck when the industries left.
The professional football team, the Oakland Raiders left the city for Los Angeles, and this added another blow to the city. This was accompanied with a black population increase. As the cities tax base eroded, Wilson had to deal with many of the problems that helped propel him into office.
He held on to power for 12 years, when voters looked to someone else to provide leadership to the city. Elihu Harris, a state legislator from Sacramento, fit that bill when he defeated Wilson for Mayor in 1989. Harris was an outsider politician, who was a prot=E9g=E9 of the then California house Speaker Willie Brown.
Harris, who will be finishing his second mayoral term in January of 1999, immediately ran into trouble when he got elected. Both Wilson and Harris concentrated on downtown development, and the neighborhoods languished but he unlike Wilson, Harris had trouble building consensus on Oakland's city council on a wide array of issues. While Wilson was seen as someone who would speak out on issues of importance to blacks, Harris wasn't and this hindered him with black constituents.
"I didn't hear Elihu Harris say anything aimed at black people, or do something directly for them," said George Brooks, an Oakland native, who is the publisher of the Brooks Bulletin newsletter. "He wasn't like Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, Georgia or Richard Arrington from Birmingham, Alabama, who went out of their way to empower and to include black people in all forms city government and contracting."
This was one of the constant complaints regarding Harris, as he was called the "invisible man" regarding issues of concern to the black community. And as he tired of his job, and he decided didn't want to run for Mayor again in June of this year, it opened the door for Brown.
BROWN'S BLACK AGENDA.
During Oakland's election, Brown was able to capitalize on his outsider status, as he was perceived as being an angry reformer. Some political operatives like Leo Bazile, an ex city councilor who ran and lost against Brown, said that Brown won partially on his name recognition. This is partially true, but it can also be argued that Brown ran more of a black agenda then his challengers.
On the campaign trail, Brown, handed out a sheet called "Blacks for Brown" which showed all of his black appointments in the state when he was governor. While some candidates in the Oakland mayoral race, downplayed the issue of race, Brown embraced it.
According to Beth Aaron, the executive director of the Bay Area Black Contractor's Association, Brown stressed the importance of black economics in the revitalization of Oakland, while the other candidates didn't stress this.
"The Bay Area Black Contractor's Association endorsed Brown, because he has the best agenda for Oakland overall," said Aaron. "He stressed the need that black businesses become economically viable in order to stabilize the economy in Oakland."
Aaron said that her group sat down and talked to all of the mayoral candidates and they came away impressed with what Brown had to say. Similar responses could be heard by younger black Oakland voters, who were tired of black politicians who didn't deliver.
Although Oakland voters were intrigued with the 30-year Reeves republican message of self-help and personal responsibility, it was Brown who energized them with his message of putting Oakland residents first regarding jobs, building up a business community and revitalizing neighborhoods.
"All of the other politicians didn't try to energize people in Oakland like Brown did," said Cooks. "Jerry Brown took advantage of the generational gap within the black community and he went to places that the other black politicians wouldn't go to. He was at all of these places consistently."
Brown with mayor Scott King of Gary, Indiana, will be one of two white mayors in majority black cities. And although the book is still open on the promises he said his leadership will bring to Oakland, there will be people looking to see he will make those promises.
"He (Brown) got elected without saying anything, but now he is the mayor, and we will see what he is going do," said Bazille.
While some political experts say that black voters had matured in electing white mayors, others saw many blacks might be looking to Brown and King as "great white saviors."
Dr. Hutchinson said a lot of black voters think white mayors can make changes that the black ones can't, but this naive thinking.
"The system will not change, and a mayor has to answer to the corporate structure. Economic Power controls politics and a mayor is just another person."
A Reemergence of Black Power
Carmichael's cry for Black Power was a call to power for group of people at the time, who were powerless. As a result of this call, thousands of black elected officials were swept into offices across the country as a road to empowering the black community. As the 21st century nears, however, the results of black elected power have been mixed.
The first wave of black elected officials were "race men" and they knew they were in office as a result of black struggle. But not only were they faced with the difficult task of being a symbol and a leader of the black community, they also became the leaders of the overall communities, were jobs soon disappeared when they got elected.
'They had to do more with less," said Dr. Walters. "They had to make deals and their politics were compromised to a great extent."
While some were responsive to the needs of the black community, others downplayed black community concerns and talked of coalition politics without formulating a plan to address the needs of the black community.
"Black elected officials for the most part have been pushing a white liberal agenda, instead of a black agenda," said Dr. Harris.
Other black politicians flat out ignored the black community.
"Tom Bradley lost his run for the governorship for California in 1984, because he choose to run a de-racialized campaign," said Dr. Harris. "During his campaign, Bradley didn't even campaign in some of the inner city areas of Los Angeles, and this led to black voter apathy and a no show at the polls for him."
Downplaying the concerns of blacks, by black elected officials, was coupled with the loss of black activism that eased up when black elected officials came into power.
While Dr. Walters said this is true, he said, "black elected power is a hostage to the structure."
"We use black leadership as a whipping boy and that shouldn't be," said Dr. Walters. "We give to much credence to black political leadership."
Although more white mayors are moving into urban areas, there is another trend taking place where black mayors are getting elected in cities with small pro-active black populations. That has been the case in San Francisco with Willie Brown, in Denver with Wellington Webb and in Seattle with Ex-mayor Norm Rice.
And although white mayors in large urban areas may be a hot trend, Dr. Harris thinks there is an upcoming wave of black consciousness and self help through economic empowerment that will sweep more responsive blacks into political power.
"We are seeing a lot of Black Nationalism springing up," said Dr. Harris. "From Kwanzaa, to the Million Man March to the Million Women March, to the Million Youth March, and not one elected black official helped with this."
- - For any questions or comments, Lee Hubbard can be reached at (415)587-7962 or by e-mail at email@example.com