Politics in the United States
Politics in the United States
African-American politics has a long, complex, and frequently painful history in the United States. By definition slaves were noncitizens, outside of the political process. Yet slaves contrived in various ways to fashion a political role for themselves. In New England African Americans elected black governors and kings during Negro Election Day festivals that combined voting with parades, food, and entertainment. During the colonial period, free blacks tried to enter the political process whenever possible, but were unable to exercise significant influence on the political system. In the half century following the end of the American Revolution, free black voting was largely restricted, but through petitions, community organizations, emigrationist activities, newspapers, and eventually the Antebellum Convention Movement, free blacks expressed themselves politically.
Beginning in the 1830s, at the same time that the Abolition movement offered blacks a voice within a national reform movement, blacks themselves set up numerous committees and organizations to struggle for suffrage, civil rights, and education. Nevertheless, the political status of African Americans remained uncertain, and it eroded during the late 1840s and 1850s as a result of growing white racism, immigrant labor competition, Fugitive Slave Laws, and other factors. Many African Americans became convinced that freedom in the United States was unattainable, and turned their attention to colonization schemes in Africa, Canada, Haiti, and other places.
The outbreak of the Civil War galvanized blacks, who saw the war as a struggle for their liberation. Throughout the first two years of the war, African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass campaigned for blacks to be armed and devoted their attention to securing aid for freemen who escaped behind Union lines, as well as civil rights and suffrage for the free black community. By 1862 blacks were permitted to enlist in the Union army. Thousands joined, recognizing the importance of the struggle, and black leaders served as recruiting agents.
For a brief period during Reconstruction, fortified by constitutional amendments guaranteeing equal citizenship and suffrage and white northern efforts to ensure southern compliance, black males for the first time participated fully in the electoral system. Black elected officials, sponsored by southern Republican parties in exchange for black voting support, appeared on the national scene, and black state legislators and convention delegates made decisive contributions to the political culture of their states. Meanwhile, there was widespread black involvement in municipal politics in the South's few cities of importance. Richmond, Virginia, had thirty-three black city council members between 1871 and 1896, while in the deep South, leaders such as William Finch of Atlanta and Holland Thompson of Montgomery, Alabama, were elected to positions on city councils. In 1873 Mifflin Gibbs was elected a municipal judge in Little Rock, Arkansas. Many smaller towns elected black mayors. Between 1870 and 1900 twenty African Americans were elected to the House of Representatives, and two served in the Senate.
White Southerners never really accepted blacks as equal members of the body politic, however, and following the withdrawal of northern pressure—both military and political—from the South during the mid-1870s, the scope of black public participation narrowed. Black officeholding all but disappeared, and black voting power was vitiated by voting fraud, intimidation of voters, and electoral devices such as redistricting. As early as 1878 the city of Atlanta changed from ward elections to at-large voting to dilute the black vote. Other cities soon followed suit. Even where black suffrage was unfettered, the dissolution of southern Republicanism left blacks no effective weapon against Democratic regimes other than through alliance with third parties such as the Populists, who were ambivalent about black support.
In the upper South, black Republicans continued to be elected in small numbers. George White, an African American, represented North Carolina in Congress from 1897 to 1901, while blacks such as Richmond's John Mitchell Jr. served on city councils in Virginia during the 1890s. Violence and legislative action against black voting during the 1890s cut off even these avenues of influence.
Meanwhile, the political influence of blacks in the urban North also diminished. In the immediate postbellum period, some blacks were elected to office. In 1866, with the aid of white voters, state representatives Charles L. Mitchell and Edward G. Walker of Boston became the first blacks elected to office from a large urban area. In 1876 George L. Ruffin was elected to Boston's Common Council, and in 1883 he became the first African American appointed to the Massachusetts judiciary. In most cities, however, the percentage of African Americans in the population remained too small for blacks to play a significant role, and as immigrant-backed machines hostile to blacks took control of city governments, black voting power diminished. Moreover, city governments were often dependent on state legislatures, which controlled budgets and selected police chiefs and other officials. These outside bodies could act to curtail or eliminate black voting strength. (Similarly, in 1871 the U.S. Congress stripped Washington, D.C., whose population was one-third black, of its elected government.) Even after many cities obtained "home rule" at the end of the century, Progressive elites instituted at-large voting and granted power to unelected city commissions and civil service workers to curb the power of blacks and ethnic whites.
Through most of the late nineteenth century, the Republican Party maintained its alliance with both southern and northern black populations through government appointments and support for education. Many black voters and party leaders measured party support not through its defense of civil rights but by the amount of political patronage granted the black community. Still, as early as the 1870s many blacks grew dissatisfied with shrinking party patronage and the party's inaction over violations of black rights, and distanced themselves from the Republicans. Beginning in the 1880s some blacks flirted with joining the Democrats. However, neither party was willing to risk alienating white voters or grant more than token assistance in exchange for the black vote. Others joined third parties or attempted to build up separate black institutions but were unable to mount effective challenges to prevailing political trends.
By 1900 virtually all southern blacks were disfranchised, while their counterparts in the North were unable to exert significant influence. A few political clubs, such as New York's United Colored Democracy, were formed, but they were merely satellite party groups, given minor patronage positions in exchange for promoting white candidates. Black political power remained largely dormant for a generation, except for the influence black strongmen such as Charles Anderson in New York City, Robert Church Jr., in Memphis, and, above all, Booker T. Washington wielded over Republican Party patronage. The ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women of all races the right to vote, had little discernible impact on black political strength. In the first years after the turn of the century, former border states such as Maryland were the only places with significant African-American influence on municipal government. For example, in 1890 Harry Sythe Cummings became the first of several blacks over the following years to sit on the Baltimore City Council.
The Great Migration of southern blacks to northern and Midwestern cities during the late 1910s and 1920s brought in its wake large numbers of new voters. The voting power of the increased population was strengthened by the increasing ghettoization and residential concentration of African Americans. Their votes were organized in exchange for patronage by ward leaders selected by urban machines, such as New York's J. Raymond Jones and Chicago's William Dawson. In many places, city council and other municipal elected offices remained largely powerless, and ward committee positions were the most powerful city jobs most blacks held. In a few areas, blacks became a large enough segment of the population to elect black officials. In 1915, after the creation of a largely black district in Chicago, Republican Oscar DePriest won election to the city's Board of Alderman. In 1919 Charles Roberts was elected to New York City's Aldermanic Board. Similarly, Frank Hall was elected to the Cincinnati City Council in 1931. The growing strength of black organizations was evidenced by DePriest's election in 1928 as the first northern black congressman. As important, the migration and the Great Depression helped foster increasing black community militancy, and civil rights joined patronage as a primary concern of African-American voters.
During the 1930s, as a result of aid from New Deal social programs, urban machine involvement, and labor union activism, the majority of black voters were drawn into the Democratic Party coalition. Meanwhile, black Democratic elected officials, beginning with Arthur Mitchell in 1934, entered Congress as well as state legislatures and municipal bodies. While the Democrats did not commit to civil rights action or provide aid proportionate to the level of black support, they made symbolic gestures toward the black community and instituted several relatively race-neutral government programs. While blacks backed Democratic candidates, many remained registered Republicans. A small number of blacks supported minor parties, notably the Communist Party, whose advocacy of civil rights and interracialism won it the support or approval of many African Americans.
In the years after World War II, black political activity increased. The war brought renewed migration to the North of southern blacks, who swelled urban voting blocs. The migration made possible the election of larger numbers of black officials such as Harlem, New York, minister Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who in 1941 became the first African-American member of the New York City Council, and who three years later was elected to Congress.
At the same time, civil rights became a national issue. In 1948 the adoption of a strong civil rights platform at the Democratic National Convention prompted a walkout by some white Southerners. Democratic presidential candidate Harry Truman was elected nevertheless, and his victory helped demonstrate the electoral clout of urban African Americans. Gradually, over the following years, northern Democrats championed that party's transition to a strongly pro-black position.
Postwar black population growth in the urban North continued to be heavy, and its effects were heightened by declining white populations, as whites migrated to nearby suburbs. In 1953 New York State assemblyman Hulan Jack was elected to the powerful position of Manhattan borough president. Soon after, Newark and Detroit, two cities with heavy concentrations of black residents, gained their first black city councilmen.
In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the "white primary," a leading method by which southern blacks were deprived of the ballot. The decision increased both southern black voter registration and pressure for suffrage rights. Beginning with the South Carolina Progressive Democratic Party in 1944, blacks formed satellite political organizations to encourage voter registration and unity. The migration of rural blacks to southern industrial centers also accelerated during the 1950s, and all the deep South states had majority urban populations by 1960. The large potential vote the migrants made up was partially unleashed by registration efforts and the reduction of barriers to registration. A few blacks even won election to office. In 1948 Oliver Hill became Richmond's first black city councilman in a half century, and in 1957 Hattie Mae White was elected to Houston's school board.
To neutralize the power of the black vote, both white Southerners and their northern counterparts adopted various electoral stratagems: At-large elections were instituted for political offices; runoff elections assured a solid white bloc vote against black candidates; cities annexed adjacent white suburbs to dilute the percentage of blacks in the city; black areas were divided or merged with nearby white areas to prevent the formation of black majority districts (Tuskegee, Alabama, gerrymandered its black voters out of the city, a move struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960 in Gomillion v. Lightfoot ).
The civil rights movement of the 1960s made possible the return of blacks as full-fledged actors on the national political scene. Not only did the movement's demonstrations bring black concerns temporarily to the top of the American political agenda, but also grassroots lobbying and voter registration efforts, through such organizations as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the National Democratic Party of Alabama gave masses of previously disfranchised southern blacks a channel for political self-expression. The culmination of the nonviolent movement's triumphs was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned most of the measures used to curb black voting. The black vote unleashed by the act, and its subsequent extensions and amendments, completely transformed the southern political landscape and made possible the election of large numbers of black officials. By 1970 black city councilmen and state representatives had been elected in several southern states, and in 1972 Andrew Young of Georgia and Barbara Jordan of Texas became the first southern blacks elected to Congress in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, throughout the country, the conjunction of white urban depopulation and the growing power of black political organizations brought about an explosion of black mayors in large cities (beginning with Carl Stokes of Cleveland, Ohio, and Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, in 1967), members of Congress (including Edward Brooke, who in 1966 became the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote). However, legal challenges to existing electoral districts and systems were unavailing, and many states, both in and outside of the South, continued to practice both "massive resistance" and more subtle forms of subterfuge to thwart black electoral progress. As a result, change was continually retarded.
Despite the unprecedented political and electoral strides made by African Americans, the future of black politics remained uncertain. An African-American political class, made up of elected officials and black political leaders such as Jesse Jackson, has grown up during the years since 1965. Through such forums and networks as the Congressional Black Caucus, formed in 1971, its members have succeeded in articulating black concerns within mainstream political channels and in obtaining a certain share of national political influence (in part a result of the disproportionately high seniority rate of blacks in Congress). However, entrenched racism and the poor socioeconomic status of African Americans remain obstacles to full integration of the community into the nation's body politic. Even as blacks such as former governor L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia demonstrate crossover electoral appeal, black frustration with mainstream party policies that appear to downplay their needs has resulted in chronic low voter turnout and has led some frustrated activists to turn from mainstream political parties toward independent black institutions.
African-American involvement in American politics began in the period from 1619 through 1865. During much of that time, the historical record of African-American political involvement is thin. Nevertheless, there is much to indicate that African-American political activity, both as part of the larger American body politic and as African Americans' organizing institutions that mirrored and challenged their white counterparts, often was an offshoot of African values and customs.
African-American politics began in the seventeenth century, and political participation grew during the eighteenth. The most direct actors were free African Americans. Two categories of political participation were available to them during this era: pressure and electoral politics. As an example of the former category, in New Netherlands (later New York) in 1661, free blacks petitioned the director-general and lords councilor of the colony to mandate that their adopted children be recognized as free. The petition was granted. In 1726 a free black petitioned the chief justice of the General Court in North Carolina, asking the colonial judiciary to uphold his free status and voluntary choice of association. The court denied this request. In 1769 a group of free blacks in Virginia successfully petitioned the House of Burgesses to have their families exempted from taxation.
As for electoral participation, the small free black population was allowed to participate in certain places. In the thirteen colonies, prior to the Revolution, there was sporadic voting by free blacks. Only four southern colonies explicitly denied free blacks the vote, and even in these colonies it is not improbable that here and there people willingly acquiesced in the casting of an occasional ballot by a black man or a mulatto. The earliest record of such black voting came from South Carolina, where the 1701 and 1703 gubernatorial elections were marked by widespread complaints over free black votes.
The legal flexibility that made free black voting possible resulted from the fact that there were free blacks at that time, and their existence went all but unnoticed. The vast majority of African Americans during the colonial era were slaves, who could not legally vote or engage in formal political activities. Some slaves may have been allowed to vote in close elections by their plantation masters. Historical research has uncovered such practices in Rapide Parish—dubbed "the ten-mile district"—in Louisiana, and these practices continued from the early nineteenth century until the eve of the Civil War. Manipulated as this voting was, it did develop a group of individuals who were at least socialized into the evolving political process.
The slaves' exclusion from electoral participation did not mean that they were entirely cut off from political expression. Such expression can, of course, be found—indirectly—in the acts of slaves who resisted punishments, escaped, purchased their freedom, or revolted, or who destroyed the property of the masters. This behavior, motivated by ingrained concepts of freedom and liberty fueled by memories of one's own or one's forebears' liberty in an African past, as well as responding to an immediate situation of oppression, contained a clear political message.
Moreover, slaves played an active role in the political culture in some areas of Colonial and early national New England through the celebration of Negro Election Day as part of the Colonial election day festivities. The ceremonial election of black "governors" and "kings" began in the mid-eighteenth century in ports and administrative centers with large slave populations. The earliest evidence of the ceremony is from Salem, Massachusetts, in 1741; Newport, Rhode Island, in 1756, and Hartford Connecticut, from sometime before 1766. It quickly spread throughout New England and adjacent areas such as Albany, New York, with black leaders' "jurisdictions" shrinking to the county or town level as more towns participated. Although this was only ceremonial voting, it was an exercise that probably helped to develop black political leadership and promoted the organization of the slave community. At least it represented the demand by African Americans to participate in the public life of the larger society, as filtered through their own appreciation of African political traditions. In some areas, such as New Hampshire, black community members even formed "slave courts" that regulated the conduct of slaves and punished offenses.
The Colonial political system did shape the fledgling efforts of African Americans to participate in the political process. For example, whether the election was for "governor" or "king" seems to have depended on the type of colony in which the election was held: Blacks in charter colonies, which elected their own governors, had black "governors," while those in royal colonies, whose governors were appointed by the king of England, selected "kings." Similarly, there were rude party divisions of blacks into "Tories" and "Whigs" (based on masters' political leanings). The institutions African Americans built covertly expressed their struggle against political powerlessness and satirized the white institutions that surrounded and excluded them.
The immediate context of the white election day ritual, however, was not the only operative variable in the establishment of Negro Election Day. There was also the influence of African background and heritage. The religiouspolitical Adae ceremony of the Ashanti provides an illustration of a similar custom. Other customs—the coronation ritual of the Maradi, and the harvest festival of the Jukun-speaking peoples—similarly illustrate those ceremonial traditions. Indeed, peoples of African heritage in Brazil, Martinique, Cuba, and other areas of the New World engaged in similar election proceedings. Descriptions of the ritual in Newport clearly indicate African features such as songs, dances, drums, and games. Also, the ritual took place, as in Africa, in a large open space under a tree. After the 1820s, with the emancipation of most northern blacks, Negro Election Day ceremonies declined, and were largely replaced with carefully staged parades that commemorated the end of local slavery. Unlike the election day ceremonies, the emancipation parades often had an explicitly oppositional political component.
When the First Continental Congress met in September 1774, African Americans' political participation, save for events such as slave revolts, had not really arrived at the stage of coherent collective action. The rare political actions of blacks were still individual, and they lacked a strong sense of community and racial consciousness. However, by the time that revolutionary America had transformed itself into an independent nation and developed a federal system, African-American politics had begun to evolve beyond the strictly individual stage, to achieve some collective bases of action.
The revolutionary struggle that led to the creation of the United States of America had a profound effect on African-American ideology and political activities. Blacks, conscious of the irony of white colonists campaigning for "liberty" while denying it to their slaves, made use of revolutionary rhetoric and the wartime needs of the country to carve out a political space for themselves. Between 1773 and 1774 African Americans in Massachusetts presented five collective antislavery petitions to the General Court, Massachusetts's governing body. One of the early petitioners, from 1773, challenged the legislators, "We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them." Scores of other petitions protesting slavery and discrimination were presented to the legislatures of the newly independent states in the following years.
When war broke out, many free African Americans joined the fledgling American army, recognizing that military service was a traditional mark of citizenship. Partly for the same reason, white authorities soon attempted to bar blacks from military service. Once white opposition to arming slaves, at least in the northern states, melted away under pressure of military necessity, blacks enlisted in disproportionate numbers in the Continental Army. Meanwhile, slaves in Virginia, promised freedom by royal governor Lord Dunmore if they fought on the side of England, rushed in large numbers to his offshore base.
Revolution in America did little to improve the political participation of African Americans. Four of the new state constitutions denied free blacks the right to vote; five more states would eventually deny it, and only four would never deny it. Thus only four of the thirteen original colonies—plus Vermont, admitted to the Union in 1791—permitted African Americans to vote. In all of these four states—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New York—the Negro Election Day celebrations continued to be observed regularly, though New York imposed a discriminatory property requirement for black voters in 1821. In Connecticut, which denied African-American suffrage in 1818, the blacks' last "governor" held office shortly before the Civil War.
Nevertheless, the petitions and military service did exert an influence on the new governments in the years after the war's end. State legislatures in the North passed gradual abolition statutes, and even southern states passed laws simplifying manumission. Many veterans were freed, and some were franchised. Wentworth Cheswell of New Hampshire, probably the first person of African descent elected to office in North America, served as a justice of the peace as early as 1768, and was town selectman for New Market, New Hampshire, several times after 1780. In 1806 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the state senate. In 1831 Alexander Twilight of Vermont became the first African American elected to a state legislature.
Most of the states abolished the slave trade within their borders, although the U.S. Constitution delayed federal action until 1808. Meanwhile, African Americans and white antislavery allies appealed to the judiciary, bringing a handful of test cases challenging slavery in state courts. In 1783 Quock Walker brought a freedom suit in Massachusetts. Judge Richard Cushing ruled slavery incompatible with the state's constitution, resulting in the effective end of slavery in Massachusetts. By 1800 a number of northern states had passed emancipation statutes.
The development of two opposing national political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans (later the Democratic Party), increased black political involvement. To the extent that blacks participated in campaign and electoral politics, they overwhelmingly supported the Federalists, led in part by such antislavery figures as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, over Thomas Jefferson and the Democrats, who were identified with slavery and southern interests. The Federalist Party sought the support of black leaders such as New York City's Joseph Sidney and Philadelphia's Absalom Jones, and in 1809 established a black political club, the Washington Benevolent Society, which maintained active branches in Boston and New York City. Black voting played a notable role in the Federalists' narrow victory in New York in 1813.
With the changing structure of government and electoral context came a change in political protest behavior. Not only did African Americans send their petitions and memorials to various state executives and legislatures, but by 1797 they were also sending petitions to the Congress of the United States. On January 23, 1797, four African Americans living in Philadelphia petitioned Congress though Representative John Swanwick of Pennsylvania for a redress of their grievances, which were related to a North Carolina law of 1788 that provided for the capture and reselling of illegally manumitted slaves. Seven days after the petition arrived, Congress debated whether to accept or reject "a petition from fugitive slaves." By a vote of 50–33, Congress rejected the petition. This initial petition was soon followed by another, which arrived in "the second day of the new century," in 1800. Absalom Jones had his representative, Robert Waln of Pennsylvania, present a petition to Congress to demand the banning of the slave trade and the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. However, Congress voted 85–1 not to consider the petition.
Thus, in this early national period, when African-American political participation was still closely circumscribed by denials of the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office, and to bring a legal suit against a white person, black political participation showed signs of expanding and extending itself into new directions. Not only did African Americans show increasing inclination to exert pressure and redirect their focus, they now began to take on a collective impulse. The influence of the African heritage and background was a strong spur to organization, in the form of mutual aid and fraternal organizations, educational societies, and black religious organizations, which grew up in African-American communities and served as the centers of collective effort and activism. For example, in Rhode Island, on November 10, 1780, free blacks established the African Union Society; in Massachusetts they formed The Sons of Africans Society in 1808. New York saw an African Society in 1809; Pittsburgh, an African Education Society in 1832; Boston, an African Lodge in 1787; and New York City, an African Marine Foundation in 1810. That these groups bore African names was no mere accident of simple naming. In the extant constitutions, preambles, laws, minutes, proceedings, resolutions, and reports of these African organizations, a budding "race consciousness" and sense of racial solidarity is openly expressed. Out of this sense of race-based community came the collective action that marked antebellum black pressure politics.
"Africa" did not simply provide the internal cohesion for these interest/pressure groups; it would also become a symbol of freedom and liberty. With the beginning of the emigration and colonization efforts, the influence of Africa directly reentered the contextual political realities of African Americans. The initial pioneering effort of Paul Cuffe, who personally returned thirty-eight free Negroes to Sierra Leone in 1815, was institutionalized (though substantially changed) in December 1816, when the American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed. Five years later, the society established the colony of Liberia. Although the two efforts had outwardly similar objectives, Cuffe sought Africa as a place of freedom and liberty. On the other hand, the motives of the society were at best mixed and questionable, since the society wished to send free blacks to Africa in part to eliminate what they saw as the anomalous position of the free black in the North. The implication that free blacks have no role to play in American society soon came under attack by African Americans, who saw the ACS as racist, and this served to catalyze their subsequent organizing efforts.
Finally, the late 1820s saw the beginning of African-American newspapers, which provided a forum for spokespersons who would take up the struggle on behalf of their "colored fellow citizens." (Freedom's Journal, founded in New York City in 1827, was the earliest.) The numerous efforts of such individuals and papers heralded not only a rising sense of solidarity and community but also vindicated the acts of pressure and protest in the revolutionary and the early national period that seemed, at first blush, so futile.
Thus elements of the African background provided the underpinning for fledgling African-American pressure group activity in the new nation by 1830. The first Negro convention was held on September 20, 1830, in Philadelphia, with delegates from seven states. Another convention met the next year, and black conventions subsequently were organized four times during the 1830s, three times in the 1840s, and twice in the 1850s. At the 1864 national convention in Syracuse, New York, the movement reorganized itself into the National Equal Rights League. The national convention movement directed, albeit in a rather unstable way, a mass self-help movement of the churches, mutual aid societies, and fraternal organizations, and took these efforts into the political area. With the emergence of such mass political action in both the electoral and protest areas, African-American politics had come of age.
The national organization, where possible, set up state and local affiliates. Some state and local auxiliaries pursued policies and directions independent of those of the national organization. When they were meeting and functioning properly, the national, state, and local bodies issued resolutions, petitions, prayers, and memorials addressed to state legislatures and to Congress. While their chief interest was the antislavery struggle, the conventions acted on other issues as well. Political rights such as suffrage, jury service, and repeal of discriminatory legislation were major concerns. Despite their support of abolitionist groups, the convention members also chided the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, for its unwillingness to champion "social equality."
Temperance, education, and moral reform stood high on the agenda of many Negro conventions and allied groups throughout the era. Equally important was the fight for women's equality and voting rights. As early as Maria Stewart in the 1830s, African-American women played prominent roles in black politics. Just as many white feminists became politically committed through abolitionist activities, so black leaders from Sojourner Truth to Frederick Douglass attended feminist conferences and pressed for the end of gender discrimination.
The convention movement was supplemented by countless local political committees and pressure groups that campaigned for civil rights and educational opportunity. Black groups formed in the early 1830s, such as the Phoenix Society in New York City and the American Moral Reform Society, based in Philadelphia, added civil rights petitioning to their temperance and educational efforts. Meanwhile, African Americans in New York City and Philadelphia organized committees to protest denials of equal suffrage and to stimulate black political involvement. African Americans in Boston successfully lobbied to overturn a state law forbidding racial intermarriage, and organized protests that desegregated most of the state's railroads. In 1855 the Legal Rights Association sued in a New York City court protesting segregated streetcars and won a judgment. In 1849 Benjamin Roberts pursued a test case challenging segregated schools in Boston to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Although he lost, the state legislature integrated the schools in 1855.
In December 1833 the American Anti-Slavery Society, the first national abolitionist organization, was founded in Philadelphia. This marked the awakening of abolition as a full-fledged sociopolitical movement, and it catapulted blacks into the center of the political system. The electoral efforts of most free blacks in this era were focused on their work for and participation in a host of antislavery third parties. They attended their conventions and served as low-level officers at the conventions, especially as secretaries. They succeeded in having resolutions and platforms adopted that called for equality. They campaigned for the standard-bearers of these parties. Where they could, they voted for these candidates. And in several states in the expanding new nation, these antislavery parties sought to have the state extend suffrage to free blacks, but to no avail.
When the first antislavery party, the Liberty Party, was formed on April 1, 1840, at Albany, New York, it announced that its goal was "the absolute and unqualified divorce of the General Government from Slavery, and also the restoration of equality of rights, among men, in every state where the party exists or may exist." The Liberty Party's leaders reached out to free blacks, and shortly after the founding of the party, influential black leaders began to associate with it, attending party conventions and providing what limited electoral support they could muster. In return, the Liberty Party welcomed black supporters into party councils and leadership positions.
The brightest spot in the party's history was the election of John M. Langston on the party's ticket to a township clerk position in Ohio in 1855. Langston's nomination for office was the first ever given an African American by a political party. Despite this achievement, the Liberty Party was unable to compete with subsequent abolitionist parties. Its numbers declined through the 1850s, and it dissolved in 1860.
African Americans also became involved in the Free Soil Party. At its founding convention in Buffalo, New York, on August 9, 1848, the party adopted a platform calling for the exclusion of slavery from the District of Columbia and the territories of the United States, though it conceded the legality of slavery in existing states. While the party called for jury trials for captured fugitive slaves, it made no commitment to expanding black equality, and many of its leaders opposed black suffrage. Free blacks participated in the convention, and later in the campaign, despite the party's limited positions on equality and the liberation of slaves. Although unsuccessful in its initial presidential bid, the party tried again in 1852. This time the national nominating convention adopted a resolution favoring black suffrage, and elected Frederick Douglass secretary of the convention. Despite the work of Douglass and other free blacks, the party polled fewer votes than it had in 1848, and dissolved after the election.
There were other antislavery parties in which African Americans participated. Frederick Douglass attended the convention of the new National Liberty Party in Buffalo, New York, on June 14–15, 1848. The party's poor performance in the 1848 presidential election—which may have been the consequence of its stiff competition from the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party—led to its collapse soon afterward. Another party, the Political Abolition Party, took up the struggle in 1856. It had an even more dismal showing than expected; it collected only 484 votes for its presidential candidate. It did not again contest a presidential election.
The antislavery parties were never large organizations, although they helped swing the balance in several elections. Their failure during the 1850s was largely the result of the entry of the Republican Party into the political fray. The Republicans captured the political imagination of many free blacks, and a significant degree of their support. In 1860 the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency, with the overwhelming support of free blacks and attentive slaves.
Beginning in the 1840s, the African heritage began to influence African-American political participation and action in a new and more direct way, through the doctrine of African-American political nationalism. The historians John Bracey Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick describe the dynamics of this era:
In the 1840s a number of converging developments turned Negro ideologies in more nationalist directions: the essential failure of the antislavery movement to liberate the slaves; the evidences of racism among many white abolitionists… increasing trends toward disfranchisement and segregation in public accommodations in many of the northeastern states, combined with the continuing pattern of discrimination in the Old Northwest that made the black man's condition there similar to that in the South; and the growing hopelessness of the economic situation….
One result of the growing estrangement of African Americans from the mainstream of American politics was the national convention movement's increasing withdrawal from interracial groups and endorsement of independent black political organizations. Of course, this trend did not contradict its members' goal of equality in the United States. While blacks were nationalistic about their color, and were determined to build separate black institutions, their nationalism did not preempt their demands for inclusion as Americans. Black institutions were created as a halfway measure, as a means to the end of integration.
The events of the 1850s aggravated the obstacles confronting African Americans. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made life unsafe and dangerous for large numbers of free blacks, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act threatened to extend slavery into new territories. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, that blacks had no rights as United States citizens and that a state could not forbid slavery, was responsible for convincing large numbers of black activists of the necessity for radical action. A few supported the idea of a violent overturning of the slave system, and threw their support to the white abolitionist John Brown, who planned a slave insurrection. At the same time, a number of African Americans mounted emigration and colonization efforts. Some emigrationists favored mass emigration to Africa. For them, Africa would be the place to create a great nation, a place where freedom and liberty would prevail and a place where an African nation might arise that would eventually rival that of America. Larger numbers moved to the relatively safe haven of Canada. Others favored Haiti, Central America, or other places. National emigration conventions were held in 1854, 1856, and 1858.
On the eve of the Civil War, the essential features of African-American political culture had taken form and had started to mature. The dual influences of America and Africa had converged in the era of abolitionism and black nationalism to shape a political culture that had one message: In a society where racism is a permanent feature, equality and liberty for African Americans could not be left solely to the efforts of whites; instead, in a time of political and democratic restriction, a special role had to be played by African Americans themselves.
Reconstruction to the Present
During the Reconstruction era, stretching from 1865 through 1877, the nature of African-American politics was radically transformed. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave African-American men the right to vote. Before the Civil War only a segment of the African-American community in the North was allowed to participate in politics; during the Reconstruction era, the entire community was permitted to participate. The results were striking, electing twenty African-American congressmen, two senators, a governor, six lieutenant governors, numerous local officials, state legislators, and delegates to state constitutional conventions. In addition to the figures who served in official positions, Reconstruction also energized large elements of the African-American community in political struggles. However, the gains achieved during Reconstruction were largely overturned in the years after the political compromise of 1877, when federal troops were withdrawn from the southern states, where most African Americans lived.
By the turn of the century, most southern states had adopted poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures that disfranchised the vast majority of their black populations. Segregation was rigidly imposed on African Americans, whose hard-won citizenship rights were largely ignored. Even in the northern states, where African Americans retained voting rights, de facto housing and employment discrimination eroded the dream of equality. From the 57th until the 70th congresses there were no African Americans in the House or the Senate, and few local or state officials. In the face of such burdens, blacks organized what political protests they could.
The political struggle of African Americans from the end of Reconstruction to at least the 1960s, and in many ways to the present, has been focused on one goal: to reshape the political landscape so that the political and economic liberties of African Americans would be restored. When this goal was unworkable through major party politics, some blacks turned in independent, and sometimes separatist, directions. As early as the 1880s, many blacks, particularly in the North, grew dissatisfied with the Republican Party, which refused to act effectively against deteriorating race relations or to offer the black electorate patronage commensurate with its voting support. Black activists such as T. Thomas Fortune and Peter H. Clark urged African Americans to be politically independent and either explore the possibility of supporting the Democratic Party or establish an independent political party. Neither party was generally prepared to offer significant rewards. The resulting frustration led some African Americans to eschew major party politics altogether.
Beginning in the 1870s, many black voters supported factions and splinter groups of the Republicans such as the National Republicans and the Greenback Party, as well as statewide organizations such as Virginia's Readjusters. These groups generally opposed the tight-money, probusiness slant of the mainstream Republicans. While they supported racially liberal platforms and welcomed black electoral support, most of these groups were not interested in campaigning for black interests or soliciting black participation in party activities.
The first national third party that blacks supported was the Prohibition Party, whose presidential campaigns attracted a solid core of black voters through the mid-twentieth century. The Prohibition Party did not target civil rights issues, but their radical reform message encompassed black interests. Temperance had long been a concern of black leaders in an attempt to raise the moral image and economic standing of African Americans. The elite nature of the party, particularly in the South, offered blacks with middle-class aspirations a measure of status, and the movement's strong Christian ideology contributed to general ideals of racial harmony and fairness. During the 1884 and 1888 campaigns, Prohibitionists realized that blacks represented swing votes on temperance measures, so the party reached out to them, sponsoring interracial rallies with black speakers and inviting African Americans to join organizing committees and convention delegations. For example, the African Methodist Episcopal bishop Henry McNeal Turner spoke for Prohibition Party candidates and was a delegate to the party's 1888 national convention. Philadelphia had a strong black Prohibitionist party in the late nineteenth century, at times supported by such stalwarts of black Philadelphia life as AME bishop Benjamin Tanner and physician Nathan Mossell. Also, the Prohibition Party generally opposed urban Democratic machines dominated by white ethnics, who were traditional antagonists of the black community. During the twentieth century, as the party grew more racially restrictive and black elites found other political channels, support for the Prohibitionists waned.
The Populist Party, the political arm of an agrarian movement of the 1890s, revolved around a platform of democratic reform, debt relief, and monetary expansion that appealed to southern and Midwestern black farmers who supported party candidates for president and for state offices. Prominent southern blacks such as former Georgia state legislator Anthony Wilson supported the party. Many Populists, such as Tom Watson of Georgia, called for interracial economic unity and took radical positions in support of the legal rights of African Americans. Populists helped elect black officials, such as North Carolina congressman George White in 1896. Populist representatives often voted funds for black education. However many white Populists were ambivalent about black participation and voting support, fearing white racist backlash, and were cautious about challenging discrimination. With the help of voting fraud and manipulation in Black Belt areas, southern Democrats beat back Populist challenges during the 1890s. Some Populist leaders, such as the South Carolina senator "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, had rarely disguised their racial demagoguery. Others, such as Georgia's Tom Walton, underwent a notorious transformation, from supporting interracial cooperation during the heyday of the Populist era to becoming a virulent racist and defender of lynching. Black populists also despaired of joint black-white efforts. John B. Payner, a Texas Populist who was one of the party's leading orators, became an embittered supporter of separate black institutions, acknowledging that the price for their survival was a subservient relation to white authorities.
As a result of their own entrenched racism, many Populists responded by supporting black disfranchisement campaigns. Despite the reversal of southern Populist leaders on black issues, small numbers of blacks continued to support the declining party during its presidential campaigns of 1900, 1904, and 1908.
During most of the twentieth century, when the vast majority of blacks in the South were unable to vote, the center of black voting strength and political influence shifted to the urban North. The record of black activity in third parties during the first half of the twentieth century reveals a strong tie between black political participation and the politics of economic protest. A few blacks offered support for candidates running on economic reform platforms, including the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party in 1912 and the Progressive Party in 1924, despite the refusal of party leaders to seat black delegates or to reach out to black voters. However, in 1948 Henry Wallace, running for president on the Progressive Party ticket, campaigned strongly for black votes. Wallace made civil rights a centerpiece of his platform and organized integrated tours of the South. However, while he was supported by such black leaders as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, a strong Democratic Party platform on civil rights sharply reduced Wallace's appeal.
Throughout this period, the Communist, Socialist, and other workers' parties repeatedly sought and gained black support for their ideologies and platforms. In the late nineteenth century a number of African-American leaders, such as Peter H. Clark of Cincinnati and T. Thomas Fortune, expressed sympathy with socialist ideas. The Socialist Party, founded in 1901, gained few black converts in its first two decades, though W. E. B. Du Bois expressed strong sympathy with socialism as early as 1907 and briefly joined the party in 1912. It vigorously denounced the exploitation of workers, but subordinated race to class in its policies, refusing to recognize the special problems facing African Americans. Many of its leaders held racist views, and while the party platform opposed disfranchisement and leaders such as Eugene V. Debs publicly opposed racial discrimination, the Socialists offered no special support for black interests. After World War I, the party's platform became more inclusive. Larger numbers of blacks, inspired by African-American Socialist orators such as A. Philip Randolph, H. H. Harrison, Cyril V. Briggs, Richard Moore, Chandler Owen, and Frank Crosswaith, moved to support party candidates.
The Communist Party of the U.S.A., formed in 1921, shared the class-based approach of the Socialists. By the end of the 1920s, in accordance with Moscow's ideological support of non-Western nationalism, the party developed a platform calling for worker unity in the North and African-American "self-determination" in the southern Black Belt. While black party membership was always low, the Communists attempted to exert a disproportionate influence on black life. Unlike the Socialists, the Communists'—especially in the South—actively shifting position on the Nazi-Soviet alliance destroyed its southern base. The decline of the Communist and Socialist parties after 1950 was accompanied by the formation of several minor Marxist political parties, notably the Trotskyist-influenced Socialist Workers' Party, beginning in the 1950s. Probably the most influential African-American Trotskyist was the West Indian historian and theorist C. L. R. James, who lived in the United States from 1938 until his expulsion in 1953. Tiny parties such as the Workers' World Party drew black support during the 1980s. These parties actively sought a black constituency through powerful denunciations of racism and integrated leadership but were unable, due in part to lack of money for broad-based campaigns, to draw more than a small percentage of the black vote.
Beginning in the 1960s, various New Left and other radical parties without large black constituencies sponsored black candidates for political office. For example, in 1968 during the height of the antiwar movement, Dick Gregory, an African American, ran for president on the Freedom and Peace Party's ticket. In 1992 Leonora B. Fulani, running as the presidential candidate of the New Alliance Party, became the first black minor party presidential candidate to qualify for federal matching campaign funds.
The antimainstream impulse developed largely as a consequence of the political discrimination that the white majority in various states has used to block the entrance of blacks into mainstream political parties. An equally significant development, however, is the appearance and growth of independent black political parties and factions throughout the twentieth century. The southern states, particularly Mississippi, provided the most promising conditions for these independent parties. Yet the appearance of national black separatist parties in 1904, 1963, and 1992 indicates that the impulse was not limited to the South.
The first black party was the Negro Protective Party, formed in Ohio in 1897, but this was not a truly independent organization. Taking advantage of black discontent over Republican inattention to black needs, the Ohio Democratic Party financed a small group of black Democrats and independents, who formed a party and ran a slate of candidates for governor and other state offices on a platform of civil rights and control of white mobs. Many "party" candidates were paid off by Republicans to withdraw their candidacies so as not to cut into the black Republican vote. The party's gubernatorial candidate, Sam J. Lewis, received only 477 votes, and the few remaining candidates for other posts did even worse.
The first nationally based black political party was the National Liberty Party, which grew out of local Civil and Personal Liberty leagues. On July 5, 1904, a convention of the leagues was organized in St. Louis, Missouri, and was attended by delegations from thirty-six states. Iowa editor George Edwin Taylor was chosen as the party's presidential candidate. The party gained only a few votes, and it disappeared after the election.
Although two independent black presidential candidates ran in Alabama on the ticket of the Afro-American Party in 1960, the next serious attempt to build a nationwide black party came with the formation of the Freedom Now Party. Organized by African-American lawyer Conrad Lynn as a national party at a convention in Washington, D.C., during the famous March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, it ran candidates in elections in New York, California, and Connecticut. When these candidates did poorly in November elections, it switched strategy to concentrate its efforts exclusively on Michigan. In 1964 the party ran a slate of thirty-nine candidates for statewide offices in that state, hoping to demonstrate its electoral strength and to educate black voters. All the candidates were overwhelmingly defeated, however, and the party dissolved soon after the election.
In the years after 1964, black activists tried on numerous occasions to establish national black parties, but without success. In 1968 the Peace and Freedom Party (not to be confused with the aforementioned Freedom and Peace Party) was created. Run by an alliance of white leftists and members of the Black Panther Party, the party selected Eldridge Cleaver as its presidential candidate. It was on the ballot in some five states, and Cleaver received almost 37,000 votes. However, the alliance disintegrated soon after the election, although some candidates ran on the Peace and Freedom ticket in California elections in 1970. In 1976 the National Black Political Assembly, an outgrowth of the 1972 National Black Convention, formed the National Black Independent Political Party. Plagued by poor funding and bad management, it succeeded neither in persuading well-known black elected officials to run for president, nor in gaining sufficient signatures to place the party slate on the ballot in any state. In 1980 the National Black Independent Political Party held a founding convention to form a nucleus of support for a 1984 campaign but was unable to overcome internal debate, and its platform was overshadowed by Jesse Jackson's independent candidacy for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. In 1992, after Jackson declined to seek the Democratic Party nomination, Ron Daniels, former chair of the National Black Political Assembly, ran for president on the Campaign for a New Tomorrow ticket, but had difficulty getting his name on the ballot in many states and finished poorly.
Satellite political organizations have proven more successful in achieving African-American political aims. While black-supported and -run, these groups have organized themselves within existing party structures. During the end of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, this independent spirit expressed itself in the form of numerous "Black and Tan" factions in Republican parties of southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Black delegates to state conventions, opposed by "lily-white" delegations, would try to gain their groups a fair share of patronage and political influence. If defeated at the state level, they would form their
own slate of delegates and candidates for local office, and appeal to the national conventions for recognition. Often, deals would be struck. Occasionally, as in Louisiana and Mississippi in the 1920s, the Black and Tan faction would win clear control of patronage.
Most factions dissolved by the turn of the twentieth century, however, as increasing numbers of blacks were disfranchised or left the Republicans and as the party courted white southern support. Sometimes party presidential candidates such as Theodore Roosevelt would recognize the black delegates, but once nominated refuse to award them a share of the spoils. In 1920 the Texas Black and Tans, tired of this strategy, ran their own candidates for the position of Republican presidential electors, receiving some 27,000 votes. In Virginia during the early 1920s a "lily-black" party ran newspaper editor John R. Mitchell for governor. The Tennessee and Texas Black and Tans disappeared in the early 1930s, as patronage and national party support was withdrawn.
During the 1930s southern blacks turned to the Democratic Party. However, excluded by white-dominated state parties, they began building shadow parties. The first example of this was the South Carolina Progressive Democratic Party. Formed at a convention in Columbia in May 1944, the party worked in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democratic candidacy while evading the state's white primary. Its representatives attended the national convention in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat the regular state delegation, and sponsored a black candidate for U.S. senator, who won some 4,500 votes in the election. While the party continued after the election, it reformed as a political caucus, working in voter registration and unsuccessfully challenging the regular state delegation at the 1948 and 1956 conventions before being absorbed completely into the state party. (In 1970 South Carolina blacks, dissatisfied with the fused party, formed the short-lived United Citizens' Party.)
Two notable examples of satellite parties are the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA). The MFDP, created in 1964, was formed as part of an effort by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights groups to dramatize the state's denial of voting rights to blacks and involve long-disfranchised Mississippi African Americans in the political process. The MFDP sponsored candidates for office in the Mississippi Democratic Party primary and sent a delegation to the 1964 Democratic national convention, urging without success that their delegation be seated in place of the white-only regular state delegation. In 1968, however, the MFDP (reorganized as the Loyal Democratic Party of Mississippi) succeeded in unseating the Mississippi delegation. While the party continued to operate into the 1970s, it was unable to elect large numbers of candidates to state or local office and eventually became part of the state Democratic Party, without a distinct status. The NDPA, one of a number of black political organizations in Alabama during the 1960s, was organized in 1968 to remedy the failure of the Alabama Democratic Party to open its organization to African Americans. In that year, the NDPA, inspired by the success of the MFDP, successfully fought to obtain recognition as the official state delegation at the Democratic national convention. While its platform and activity pushed the regular party into a more progressive racial posture, the NDPA was also unable to survive the 1970s as an independent black political organization.
The push to form separatist and independent parties suggests that African Americans had never completely forgotten or abandoned their African heritage. Although African Americans often supported the major parties, they shared the frustration that drove others to form separatist groups in search of access to political power. Even if it remained a minor channel of blacks' political activity, the independent impulse showed a stubborn ability to survive. Despite the failure of third-party and independent candidates to win election to state and national offices, their campaigns provided an opportunity for black candidates to be included in the political process during a time when African Americans were underrepresented in the mainstream political parties.
the dual impulses in african-american politics
The impulses motivating African-American politics may be illuminated by the remarks of Samuel DuBois Cook, who wrote, "Black political parties are, after all, expressions of radically abnormal conditions and consequences—basic defects in the political system. They have had a special mission—correction of those fundamental differences" (Cook 1972). He continued, "Black political parties fostered the notion and ideal of self-help, self-propulsion, group consciousness and solidarity, and political sensitivity, awareness and appreciation."
Harold Cruse offered these thoughts on African-American political parties as a means to achieve liberation:
The politics of ethnicity is more exactly the "politics of plurality." The demise of the civil rights era, beginning with 1980, points to political organization as the only alternative. Political organization also permits a renewed opportunity to make up for longstanding organizational deficiencies that have hampered black progress in economic, cultural, educational, and other social fields.
Cruse asserted that the "only option left" is to "organize an independent black party." Moreover, he argued, the ultimate aim of this black party would not be solely for the "expedient purposes of electoral politics." As he sees it, the African-American political party should not simply be an electoral political entity, but among other things a cultural political entity—that is, concerned with preserving those crucial values emanating from what we have here called the background impulses, such as self-help, self-propulsion, group consciousness, self-determination, and self-liberation.
Which of the two motors driving African-American politics—the mainstream or the separatist independent—will come to dominate the political lives of America's black men and black women remains to be seen. Clearly, the second impulse will continue as long as there is political discrimination and racism in the American political system. The separatist impulse, moreover, gives African-American politics much of its unique flavor and may prove to be the most enduring cultural legacy of African-American political activism.
black candidates in national and state elections
African-American activists in both major parties have run for their party's nomination for president. Candidates such as Shirley Chisholm in 1972, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Carol Moseley-Braun in 2004, and Reverend Al Sharpton in 2004 for the Democrats and Alan Keyes for the Republicans in 1996 and 2000, hoped to influence their parties on issues significant to the African-American
community. Below the presidential level, particularly at the senatorial and gubernatorial levels, this same phenomenon has signaled that community leaders and activists have changed their tactics and strategies in order to advance their agenda among party elites and leading candidates.
During the twentieth century, independent black political movements provided African Americans with their best opportunities to compete in the general election for seats in the U.S. Senate. Of the twenty African-American candidates for the U.S. Senate in general elections between 1920 and 1990, seventeen ran on third-party or African-American party tickets. Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who served in the Senate from 1967 to 1979, was the first African-American senator elected by popular vote. Since 1990, however, more African-American candidates for the U.S. Senate have been Democrats, including Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who in 1992 became the first female African American elected to the U.S. Senate. Among unsuccessful African-American candidates for the U.S. Senate in the early twenty-first century were Ronald Kirk (Democrat of Texas) in 2002 and Denise Majette (Democrat of Georgia) in 2004. As of 2005, Barack Obama (Democrat of Illinois) was the only African American serving in the U.S. Senate.
Historically, the vast majority of African-American gubernatorial candidates were sponsored on either third-party or African-American party tickets, mostly the latter. The first such African-American gubernatorial candidate was Sam J. Lewis in Ohio in the 1897 state election; he ran as the candidate of the Negro Protective Party. Through 1990, L. Douglas Wilder, Mervyn Dymally, and George Brown were the only African Americans to have received a major party nomination for governor or lieutenant governor and survive until the general election. In 1989 Wilder, a Democrat of Virginia, became the first African American to be elected governor of a U.S. state. By the early 2000s, although no African Americans held gubernatorial offices, several had been elected as lieutenant governors, including Joe Rogers of Colorado, Michael Steele of Maryland, and Jennette Bradley of Ohio, all Republicans.
At the local level, African-American mayoral candidates prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ran on small African-American or third-party tickets. As the black percentage of the population of major cities increased, more black mayors were elected. Similarly, in legislative districts with predominantly black populations it became relatively easy to elect black candidates. For example, seventy-one African Americans were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives between 1865 and 1992, all on major party tickets.
changing strategies in african-american politics
In the past, the efforts of African-American activists were primarily centered on increasing the number of African-American elected officials at the city, county, and congressional levels in the major parties. They also made challenges at the national party conventions, particularly at the Democratic conventions to further effect change. In addition, symbolic protest efforts have taken place via third and minor parties as well as with black parties and several notable independent candidacies. Initiated with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and reinforced by subsequent renewals, there has been a steady progression of new faces, new firsts, and new levels of achievement. Many of these activists have been motivated by conservative efforts to undermine the civil rights achievements of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the mid twentieth century this activism was directed toward creating a political majority in one of the mainstream parties and then forcing the parties to take a leading role in ending segregation and white supremacy. With Democratic leadership and Republican cooperation these efforts were directly responsible for the three major civil rights acts of the 1960s. Following these achievements, activists turned their attention to the implementation, support, and protection of these acts. However, the conservative revolution that began in the 1980s attacked affirmative action, one of the tools of the civil rights movement. In addition, African-American conservatives and their allies in the Republican Party sought rollbacks to entitlement programs, economic assistance packages, and federal aid to cities. In this way many individual and group gains were lost.
In the forty years since the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, community activists and civil rights leaders have recognized that achieving equal rights was only the beginning. Community economic needs and employment opportunities still required additional efforts. The civil rights revolution had occurred during a period of deindustrialization in the United States, when many low-wage jobs were being automated or exported, and labor unions were losing their bargaining power. Increasing the number of elected officials alone could not reverse the economic decline of many urban areas. At the same time the Democratic Party was shifting its emphasis from a platform focused on the needs of low-income Americans to improving conditions for the middle class. The impact of these shifts was felt and seen everywhere. As the Democratic Party moved to a centrist position, some activists focused their efforts on gaining more powerful national offices, and many community leaders and local officials sought higher offices to effect change in their communities. These efforts have proven difficult given the candidate-centered nature of the political process and the loss of political parties' control over candidate selection. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the national media have provided opportunities for high-profile activists to initiate campaigns outside traditional party channels. Because of this, ambitious African-American leaders have put themselves forward as candidates for national offices.
At the presidential level, African-American politicians have focused more on bringing issues to the forefront of debate and less on capturing the nomination. One way of doing this is to make a significant showing in the party's presidential primaries and then bargaining with the final party nominee to secure personal power and priority for crucial issues. In this way Jackson was able to advance his campaign manager, Ron Brown, toward the chairmanship of the DNC after his 1988 showing, and Sharpton achieved similar influence in 2004.
With its emphasis on small government, fiscal conservatism, and traditional social values, the Republican Party attracted few African-American partisans during the midto-late twentieth century. During the 1990s and 2000s, African-American senatorial and presidential candidates within the Republican Party sought to attract African-American voters as well as to build a base among the white conservative electorate in the country. Alan Keyes in presidential and senate campaigns proved only a minor success in this area. The highest-ranking African American in the party, Representative J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, was the lone African-American Republican in Congress when he retired in 2002, amid rumors that he was frustrated by his inability to achieve a meaningful leadership position within the party despite his accomplishments in Congress and his national publicity efforts supporting Republican policy positions. A few Republican Party activists, however, like Ward Connerly have been quite successful in assisting conservative Republicans at the state level to roll back affirmative
action programs. Others like Armstrong Williams have supported Republican media elites in reducing government intervention and federal assistance. They have also acted as a counterweight to the protests and criticisms of civil rights community activists. This is where these activists have given the party its most success.
Overall, African-American voters in 2005 continued to support the Democratic Party in large numbers, and the majority of African-American politicians were Democrats. With the departure of Watts from Congress, the Republican Party had no African-American representatives and few in top party leadership positions, although both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were recognized as potential candidates for the presidency. During the 2004 elections African-American Republican candidates for state and national offices attempted to build a base in the community and to recruit more members to the party. In addition, the Republican National Committee was anticipating several high-profile campaigns in 2006, including the candidacy of Reverend Keith Butler for Senate in Michigan and former professional football star Lynn Swann's run for the governor's office in Pennsylvania. In response to such challenges, Democratic leaders recognized that the loyalty of black voters could not be taken for granted and that greater efforts were needed to sustain the party's dominance among African Americans.
Among the biggest items on the political agenda for 2005 and the following year's mid-term elections is the campaign to renew the Voting Rights Act, key elements of which are due to expire in 2007. The politics of renewal is in full swing, even as the African-American community and its allies celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Act.
See also Abolition; Affirmative Action; Chisholm, Shirley; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Civil War; Communist Party of the United States; Congressional Black Caucus; Fifteenth Amendment; Free Blacks; Jackson, Jesse; James, C. L. R.; Mayors; Reconstruction; Turner, Henry McNeal
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hanes walton jr. (1996)
mervyn dymally (1996)
Updated by Walton 2005
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