Blacks and the Grand Old Party
Springfield African Americans think of
being Republicans again
February 2, 1979
Hoo boy, did I get this wrong. This was my second major Illinois Times article on the the possibility of black voters shifting their allegiance to the Republican Party. (The first, "Blacks and the Board, " concerning recent developments with the Sangamon County Board, appeared in the IT edition of December 22, 1978.) The expectation was that African Americans would follow the path of so many other once-outcast ethnic groups and turn more Republican the higher up the social ladder they climbed. And so they might have, had not the GOP beginning with Nixon mobilized racist antagonism to cement its hold on the once-Democratic white working class.
"The Republican party in the past year has been making some friendly gestures toward black voters, " read the editorial. "Whether the new dialogue will turn into formal wooing into an eventual reconciliation between blacks and the political party they once overwhelmingly supported is most uncertain.'
These skeptical observations appeared last November in the Chicago Defender, America's oldest black newspaper, under the headline, "GOP and the black vote." Until recently, that conjunction struck a note as out of tune as "Sadat and Begin" used to. For seventy years after the Civil War, of course, the Republicans owned the black vote in this country, as each election the GOP called in debts owed it by blacks for emancipation. Since the Depression, however, when black voters forsook the memories of Reconstruction for the more palpable rewards of- the New Deal, blackness and Republicanism have been mutually exclusive qualities, like fire and water.
But lately the interests of blacks and Republicans are converging again. There are philosophical and economic forces at work in the convergence, but mostly they are political: the GOP needs votes, and as the Defender wrote last November, "thousands of blacks are so disenchanted with the Democratic Party that they may now be in the mood to switch rather than fight." So far this new accommodation is more potential than it is movement. But that's what people used to say about blacks and the Democrats, too. There's not likely to be much passion in such a liaison, but there is potential for political profit on both sides, and marriages of convenience make as much sense in republics as they did in the royal houses of Europe.
About a month before the Defender editorial appeared, Bill Logan sat down with reporters in Springfield's city hall to read them a prepared statement. Logan is black, thirty-five years old, an ex-director of the Springfield Human Relations Commission, a member of the local planning commission, and president of the Springfield East Association, an activist neighborhood organization that tends the neglected flocks on the city's poor east side, where most Springfield blacks live. Able and articulate, Logan has settled into the post of assistant Equal Employment Opportunity officer with the state Department of Conservation after stints in two other state departments.
What Logan was announcing, in effect, was that after four years as an active Democrat, he was getting up and moving to the front of the bus by publicly affiliating with the Republican Party. He complained that the party in Sangamon County did not appoint blacks to positions of responsibility in agencies under its control, nor did it seek to slate qualified black candidates for local office. It did not “encourage or initiate programs that would address the real needs of the community." The Democrats, Logan said, "patronize taverns at election time, and run from black ministers after they've been successful." And the Democrats "exploited our elderly by failing to deliver on promise after promise, while captivating our young who hope things will be better someday.
"Take a look at the real record," Logan advised. "Few jobs in Sangamon County have been handed out to blacks by the Democratic leadership, and when we do get them, they are maintenance, elevator operators, clerks, janitors, cooks, bathroom attendants, guards, et cetera. Our blind loyalty to the Democratic Party has meant that we've been ignored by the Republi cans and taken for granted by the Democrats. In my view, we cannot continue giving everything to a party that has given us so little in return."
Black Democrats have been complaining about these things for years, from ward halls to the White House. But only recently have such spats led to divorce between the party and some of its black members. In early December, Logan reflected on the causes of his apostasy, speaking in an ornate baritone whose accents veer unpredictably between Bureaucratese and the street slang of the east side.
"I think black folk are beginning to say to themselves, 'Why are we Democrats?' They're becoming more sophisticated with their vote, and you're going to see blacks working not just in the Republican Party but in independent movements as well.
Sangamon County Democrats reacted to Logan's conversion by calling him a disappointed office-seeker, a charge Logan denies. There are more than patronage jobs at stake in these games of musical parties. As Marion Berry, Washington D.C.'s black mayor-elect, recently told Time magazine, it is better to make policy in office than to influence it through voting. "Electoral politics is just a tool, like nonviolent direct action was a tool," Berry said. Other black leaders agree. Said New Orleans mayor Ernest Morial, local politics nowadays is "the cutting edge of the civil rights movement."
Logan expands on this theme: "About five years ago I began to notice something. My work in the community would get just so far, then I would come up against some decision-maker. It seemed to me that the politicians didn't really care what happened east of 11th Street. And I thought to myself, 'I'd like to help make some of those decisions.' Logan ran for Democratic precinct committeeman and won, only to find himself a minority within a minority in mostly Republican Sangamon County, powerless and ignored. Four years later he quit.
"Those issues that we are used to calling 'community issues'—railroad relocation, jobs, housing—should be political issues,” said Logan. “The politicians should not just leave those issues for somebody else to solve. I'm talking about Democrats and Republicans. If they don't, people are gonna throw 'em all out, and change the system."
* * *
Some observers see the tentative black shift back toward the Republicans as a bluff to force concessions from complacent Democrats. Some chastise black Republicans as naive, or accuse them, as some Sangamon County Democrats accused Bill Logan, of seeking "personal aggrandizement" or protecting a job—which to some sounds like pots calling kettles Republicans. Black Republicanism, sniffs me Democratic state legislator privately, is "horseshit."
Maybe. There are strategists„ however—sober, intelligent people—who see in the ripening romance evidence of a major political realignment potentially as significant 'as the exodus of blacks out of the Republican camp and into that of FDR in the thirties.
Several of them work for the national Republican Party. The party has made gestures in the direction of the before most memorably under Richard Nixon, with appreciable effect. Lately, the courting has been more in earnest. For example, the nation's sixteen Republican governors meeting last November discussed what a New York Times reporter called "an all-out effort to win black votes" in 1980.
It was partly this desire to get reacquainted that led the Republican National Committee last year to invite the Rev. Jesse Jackson to speak at its annual gathering in Washington. Jackson, of course, is the charismatic director of Chicago's Operation PUSH and, more recently, Project Excel, whose roots in the black movement go back to Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The gospel according to Jackson is a call for discipline, self-reliance, responsibility, and pride. He argues that, though governments may give the poor a chance, the poor must be able to take it when it comes. Tony Hill of Boston's The Real Paper noted that. Jackson's rhetoric, if not his accents, owed much to Booker T. Washington. Self-help, he wrote, ' 'is the philosophical plank across which Jackson marched to take the RNC by storm.'"
And quite a storm it was, too. Jackson's appearance added new dimensions to the possibilities of black Republicanism, almost at a stroke erasing its image as a movement populated exclusively by middle class blacks with their eyes turned resolutely toward the main chance and away from the ghetto. Jackson agreed with Republican national chairman William Brock, who argues that the GOP has dismissed black voters for too long as "just welfare cheats looking for a handout.” In their roles as workers, businesspeople, taxpayers, and parents worried about crime, taxes and inflation like other Americans, Brock points out again and again, blacks share an unrecognized community of interests with the GOP.
Jesse Jackson isn't the only black bridging the philosophical gaps between poor blacks and the anti-big government GOP. The arguments against minimum wage laws in black college classrooms are as vehement as those heard at the white country club—in the latter case because they add to the cost of doing business, in the former because they price young and unskilled black workers out of the labor market. For similar reasons, black thinkers increasingly complain, like Republicans, about environmental regulations and no-growth economic policies, on the grounds that economic expansion is the only sure cure for the ills that plague the underclass. Recently Marshall Loeg, the economics columnist for Time, noted in a widely quoted analysis, "A rising chorus of blacks argue that poor and unemployed minorities can succeed in the long run only if more private—not government—jobs are opened in a free, growing economy." It will take a long bridge to reach from Winnetka to the South Side, but it's going faster than seemed possible a decade ago, and once up there's likely to be a lot of traffic on it. '
* * *
Jackson's is a strong, eloquent black voice, and what he's been saying to the Republicans is heard far and wide. Bill Logan heard it in Springfield, and so did Carol Dew. Dew is a black woman in her thirties, a Springfield native who's worked for state agencies under both Democratic and Republican administrations. She also put in a spell with the Xerox Corporation and ran her own management consultant service for a couple of years. For nearly two years now she's worked with Logan in the Department of Conservation, where she is EEO officer.
Dew is one of the founders of a new organization of black Republicans in Springfield called VOTE—Voters Organized To Excel. (Logan is vice-president, and Dew's husband Gene is the secretary.) Begun after a series of conversations in the winter of 1977, VOTE has a slate of officers and the beginning of an agenda. Broadly speaking, its aim is to articulate black concerns, to spur registration of black voters, school voters in the structure and procedures of government beginning at the precinct level, promote minority candidacies at all levels of politics, and generally to elect Republicans. '
"There's a great deal of work to be done in both parties if blacks are to participate in the political process, " explained Dew recently. She talked at her eastside Springfield home, on a sofa littered with yellow note paper on which she had entered notes, vote returns, precinct lists. “For example, I found out that each county chairman of each party is elected by a vote of the precinct committeemen after each primary election. Each committeeman casts a vote for himself, plus plural votes according to how many party votes were cast in his precinct in the last election.
"Look here. Precinct 20 has a black Democratic committeeman. There were 408 voters registered for the last primary election. Eleven of them cast ballots, all of them for Democrats. So that committeeman went into the election for chairman with eleven plural votes.
"Now take a look at some of the precincts on the white west side, like 105. There were 929 people registered to vote in 105, and 164 of them cast straight Democratic ballots. That's still a low turnout, but compare it with the eleven from the east side precinct. A county chairman doesn't have to listen to us. No wonder we don't get anything."
Dew has compared registration and voting patterns in Springfield's nineteen predominantly black eastside precincts with their westside counterparts. Her conclusions were dispiriting. "People always talk about voter registration," Dew points out. "But that's Step No. 2 as far as I'm concerned. We can't get those who are registered to vote. Last year the turnout in the nineteen black precincts was 32 percent in the primary election and 46 percent in the general. What good is it going to do to register more folks who won't get out to vote?"
* * *
Dew says her role—and that of VOTE—is to answer questions like that one. To some extent she sees blacks as victims of their own ignorance of the political process, an ignorance which, whatever its roots, has allowed whites to dominate them, to dictate the terms of the contract between electors and elected. Even at the neighborhood precinct level, the processes of government are not well understood, she claims, and she points out that it's futile to talk about blacks pulling the strings that control their lives when they don't know where the strings are.
"What is the system?" Dew asks. "Where do blacks fit into it? How can we function within it? How do we get things done? I learned in the course of my research that the city election commission runs the elections in this city. But the commission is run by a board that's appointed by the chief circuit court judge, and the board reflects the political composition of the five circuit judges. I gave a presentation about this to a meeting of the Urban League. There were a lot of people there who have been active in political affairs in this city for a long time—Bill Logan, Dr. (Edwin) Lee (Springfield's first black school board member), Leroy Jordan (current school board member, also didn't know that. And if they didn't know that, what's the person on the street going to know? We need to know what is, before we can do anything about it. That's the first step. Then, once we've educated ourselves, we can take a look at the larger question„ which is, 'What do we do with that education to help blacks become part of the process?' "
* * *
Now, all this talk about education and organization and registration is part of the black catechism from the '60s; as recently as in mid-January, for example, Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, was insisting in his syndicated newspaper column that one of the "hidden issues" in 1979 is black voter education and registration. As he phrased it, "a broad national effort to involve minorities in the democratic process is essential."
But on behalf of the Republicans? So intimately entwined have black aspirations and liberal, big-state policies become that most Americans cannot envision fulfillment of the first except by means of the second. As the Chicago Defender warned its readers in November, "Nothing seems farther from the GOP mentality than the sort of things many black voters are interested in— guaranteed full employment and health insurance, aggressive affirmative action, a restriction on the power and might of big business."
But for others, black and white, disenchantment with the massive federal interventions of the past fifteen years (and the paternalism they embody) is more perfectly ideological. The swing to the right has not stopped at the manicured lawns of suburbia. Jesse Jackson's up-by-the- bootstraps appeals to the dispirited young at the bottom earns applause from Carol Dew for instance. "The liberalism of the Democrats scare me more than the conservatism of the Republicans. You hear the hue and cry among black leaders over public employment programs, for example. I personally think that the biggest mistake that government ever made was to put jobs programs in the public sector instead of the private sector. People talk about the Great Society and all the ambitious programs they started then, how we were going to wipe out poverty. But look at our black youth. They say, 'Why go to work?' They can draw unemployment, they can draw welfare, then they spend their time shooting dope and killing each other."
A few years ago, when her management consulting firm business went dry, Dew had no money. But rather than apply for welfare she went to work as a temporary typist. She survived, and took from the experience a lesson that informs her politics harm these programs have done to the community is the destruction of personal pride. “For years I couldn't understand Mr. Dunham's [James Dunham, Springfield's finance commissioner] resistance to federal programs. 'Oh, Dunham's a racist,' they'd say. Well, now I think that Mr. Dunham may have the most sense of anyone on the Springfield city council, because he under- stood what federal programs can do."
* * *
VOTE boasts some twenty active members, plus another fifty or so on the sidelines. The group is still assembling its fund-raising and publicity mechanisms, and although it has decided to get involved beginning in February -in the Springfield city elections, and the school board races after that, it is too early to say exactly how, and behind whom. But perhaps its biggest task will be to shake the perception that VOTE, like the Republican Party it was formed partly to support, is not just a lobbying group for the black middle class that in no way represents the interests of the broader black community.
Dew is sensitive to the issue. "People say that once blacks make a little money they switch to the Republican Party. But that's only because whew-you're have more bills than money coming in and you're just trying to survive day to day, how are you going to have time to sit down and think about political ideology? People vote Democratic, but there's no philosophy behind it. It's just, 'Daddy was a Democrat, so I'm a Democrat.'”
* * *
The question that's being asked about black Republicanism is, "Is it real?" It was Jimmy Carter that black voters put into the White House, for example, not Jerry Ford. True, in Illinois, Governor James Thompson did well in the black wards of Chicago last fall, though less well than he did in 1976 against a weaker opponent. His aides note, "A man or woman who tries for state office would be damn foolish to ignore the black vote, and it's clear Thompson hasn't. But his showing was a personal, not a party triumph, and the fact remains that the GOP is dead in Chicago.
Even at the precinct level the signs are ambiguous. Political soothsayers in Springfield, for instance, made much of the fact that in the 1978 primary election two black precincts, each run by a born-again black Republican, turned in more Republican ballots than Democratic for the first time in recent memory; less commented on was the fact that in the general election that followed Democrats outvoted Republicans in those precincts by six to one.
Democrats and Republicans tend to agree on the causes of the shift—a growing black middle class, dissatisfaction of blacks with the Democratic Party, an evolving coincidence of interests and ideology between poor blacks and the GOP. Some Democrats point out that the convertants are mostly middle class and politically sophisticated and that the black rank and file remains firmly in the Democratic camp. That is true, answer the new Republican proselytes. But, as one long-time black Republican in Springfield noted recently: "Poor people don't start no revolutions.”
The signs are there, but so far they are hard to read. They resemble the subtle, ominous bulges that sometimes show up along geologic faults when friction between giant plates of the earth's crust builds up, eventually to slip under the strain in an earthquake that rattles the peaceful world sitting unaware atop them. Democrats looking for clues to forecast the slippage along the party's political faults might consult the older members of their own party, Many of them recall the day when a black Democrat was unheard of, when young blacks complained about exploitation and broken promises by the party they'd been loyal to for so long, that the debt that GOP said they owed the party because of something the Republicans' grandfathers had done for their grandfathers had long since been paid, that the blacks' future lay with a new party. It was the 1930s, they told their disbelieving parents, and times had changed. ●
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