Voting Rites

Black Activists Look to New Strategies, Allies to Flex Ballot Power

Washington, D.C.—Last week, when Unity '04 convened at the National Press Club in D.C., you could have carved the tension in the room into bricks. Unity '04 is a coalition of activists, academics, and organizations concerned with voter registration for blacks. But these are restless times for advocates of black ballot power. Despite a record voting turnout among African Americans in 2000, there is a sense that the significance of this newly flexed African American voting muscle—especially after Florida 2000—is in peril. Reverend Joseph Lowery, grand duke of civil rights movement activists, was piped in via speaker phone from Atlanta to set the tone. "We ain't gonna let nobody undercount, miscount—no Supreme Court, no states' rights turn us round," the reverend said bluntly.

Picking up on the theme (and turning the tension into testiness verging on anger), activist-journalist George Curry pointed to the trumpeting of the Latino population explosion as evidence that shadowy forces were working to keep the black vote down. "You know as well as I do that there has been an attempt to minimize the importance of the black vote, by Democrats and Republicans, by pitting us against our Latino brothers," said Curry. Hectoring an imaginary political strategist, he served up the mantra for the day: "Don't try to play that game, like you won't have to deal with us. Oh, you will have to deal with us."

The problem is that politicians have been dealing with record numbers of black voters since 2000, and still the Democrats—to whom blacks have tied their fate, for good or ill—do not control any branch of federal government. Then there are the complications caused by the boom in the Latino electorate. Finally, there's the Florida debacle in 2000, which left African Americans with flashbacks of Selma.

Concerned that this confluence of events will depress the future turnout of black voters, activists have diversified their appeal, enlisting everyone from the UniverSoul Circus to national morning radio show hosts like Doug Banks and Tom Joyner. It's not that African Americans, in particular, are less civic-minded. But with a president in office whom many African Americans view as not only polarizing but also illegitimate, traditional activists have gone to untraditional places in search of allies.

Banks, who has joined with Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network to launch "One Mind. One Vote," says that throughout the Florida presidential election scandal, he heard from listeners who felt their votes were being discounted. "With us being a national show, of course we heard from people in several cities in Florida," says Banks. "People were outraged. It was outright thievery. You had people who were outraged, and some who weren't surprised."

In the past, voter registration was often left to good-government types, civil rights activists, and community gadflies. But the pop approach that black activists are using mirrors a larger effort to get young voters out that was popularized by MTV's "Rock the Vote." The League of Women Voters, for instance, is collaborating with World Wrestling Entertainment in hopes of getting the hip-hop set to the polls. Entertainment is "part of the future of voter outreach," says Diallo Brooks, co-chair of D.C.-based Black Youth Vote! "Another part of it is that entertainers themselves need to be educated about the issues. The more that they're educated, the better able they are to get the message out. The young people will definitely listen."

At Tuesday's Unity '04 press conference, while most of his elders nodded in approval and politely smiled, the youthful Brooks played a public service announcement that featured a rapper exhorting the power of the ballot: "Man, woman, and child, make a difference right now!" Jay-Z, he was not. But he spoke in a language that activists are hoping resonates with black voters, particularly those under 35.

Beyond a simple appeal to youth, Unity '04 hopes to garner the attention of African Americans in all age groups. That would explain the presence of the UniverSoul Circus—a black circus troupe based in Atlanta whose primary audiences tend to be families. UniverSoul Circus has a history of wedding clowns and high-wire acts to vaguely family-friendly messages (stay in school, stay off drugs, etc.). But in an election year, it wanted a more trenchant message. "I think that one of the good things about Unity '04 is that it's nonparty and it brings together all facets of community across the country to do something good," says Jackie Davis, the troupe's vice president.

In recent years, African Americans have not wanted for voting clout in some contests. If there was one positive for African Americans that came out of the Republican sweep of Congress in 2002, it was that Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu was able to fend off a stiff challenge, largely because of the black vote. In 2000, African Americans actually cast more votes for Al Gore than they had for Bill Clinton. Overall, 56.8 percent of all eligible African Americans cast votes (61.8 percent of eligible whites voted). In local races, black turnout was even more impressive. Blacks in Florida—even with all the allegations of vote suppression—accounted for 15 percent of the turnout, despite only accounting for 13 percent of eligible voters.

Indeed, the heavy attention to the black vote may be missing a larger point: the Democrats' feeble numbers among Southern whites. According to "The Black Vote in 2000," a report issued out of Washington by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, half of Gore's voting total in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia came from African Americans. But Gore lost all three states. Ditto for his home state of Tennessee, where 35 percent of his votes came from African Americans.

Clearly, it wasn't voter apathy among blacks that killed Gore in the 2000 presidential election. But activists are worried that the Democrats' loss—despite a record turnout of African Americans—might hinder their current efforts. "If you're not a Republican, you were robbed in 2000," says Banks. "Even though there was a large turnout, many people feel like it didn't matter, because the person they voted for didn't get elected. My goal was not to have people slack off and think it's a waste of time to go out and vote. If you are breathing and you are living, you need to vote."

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