EDITORIAL: Reality and the Future
Not once upon a time, but once again, an assault on the rights of Afro-Americans is the story. The widespread denial of voting rights to the black citizens of Florida in the 2000 presidential election should remind all of two previous presidential elections - those of 1876 and 1964.
The 1876 election, pitting the Democrat Samuel Tilden against the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, eventually resulted in a deal to withdraw federal troops from the states still under reconstruction after the Civil War. That withdrawal opened the door for the nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups to mount a campaign of terror against the freed slaves and their children and for the plantation owners to install and enforce a system of sharecropping that differed but little from the slave system that the war had been fought to end. It took this country more than seventy-five years to recover from the Hayes-Tilden Compromise.
It required the Civil Rights revolution of the post World War II era to recover federal protections for Afro-American rights. But, as should be well-known, that revolution faced stubborn opposition from the defenders of Jim Crow and segregation. Although by 1964 the Democratic Party had emerged as the one of the two parties more formally committed to equal rights, the party remained dominated by the Dixiecrats - the Democrats in the South committed to preserving segregation. In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) held free and open nominating conventions across the state to elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention who would be pledged to end unequal treatment within the Party. When the delegates of the MFDP arrived at the Convention in Atlantic City, they were met not only by opposition from the segregationists but by their supposed supporters in the Party's liberal wing. None other than the liberal hero, Hubert Humphrey (later to be the losing Democratic candidate in 1968), was sent out to inform the freedom fighters that there would be no room for them at the Convention.
Two lessons from the past - the first from a time when the Democratic Party supported taking rights away from black people and the second from a time when it was supposed to be in favor of restoring them.
And what can we learn from 2000? It seems clear that the one thing that Al Gore and the architects of his post-election campaign to win Florida refused to do was to make the widespread disenfranchisement of black citizens the centerpiece of his argument. Someday, perhaps, we'll read in his memoirs of his sleepless nights as he reluctantly decided to turn his back on the outraged voices of the people of Florida. In the meantime, it would be wise to recognize that the Democrats of 2001 remain prepared to do whatever they think necessary to preserve the larger stability of the country that they rule over with the Republicans.
At the same time, it is of course black folks who voted for Al Gore or who wanted to vote for Al Gore who are raising the demand that justice be done. Is there a way to reconcile a conviction that the Democrats are part of the problem with an unqualified support for the demands of those who supported those same Democrats. In 1958, in Facing Reality, C.L.R. James and colleagues urged those who wanted to promote radical change to have "an attitude of respect for the Negro people and their ideas." They went on to say:
Great changes in recent American society, the greatest of which has been the organization of the C.I.O., have been the motive force creating new attitudes to race relations among Negroes and whites. But it is the Negroes who have broken all precedents in the way they have used the opportunities thus created. In the course of the last twenty years they have formed the March on Washington Committee which extorted Executive Order 8802 from the Roosevelt Government. This was the order which gave the Negroes an invaluable weapon in the struggle to establish their right to a position in the plants. Negro soldiers, in every area of war, and sometimes on the battlefield itself, fought bloody engagements against white fellow soldiers, officers, generals, and all, to establish their rights as equal American citizens.
The Negroes in the North and West, by their ceaseless agitation and their votes, are now a wedge jammed in between the Northern Democrats and the Southern. At any moment this wedge can split that party into two and compel the total reorganization of American politics.
We still live in the political era established by the split that James and his co-authors anticipated in 1958. All those who yearn to fight for a new world should remember their advice to be respectful and resist the easy temptation to tell people what they need to know. As James also pointed out in 1958, "If Negroes outside of the South vote, now for the Democratic Party and now for the Republican, they have excellent reasons for doing so, and their general activity shows that large numbers of them see voting and the struggle for Supreme Court decisions merely as one aspect of a totality. They have no illusions."
The world of 2001 is not the same as the one of 1958. But in the same way that the world was re-made and new possibilities created by the Civil Rights Movement that was under way in 1958, we may yet find that the turmoil in Florida allows us once again to face reality and dream the future.