I call it the Fannie lou Hamer reflex—named for the Mississippi activist who famously said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Say no, and damn the consequences. People in the street last week were telling me that after eight years of Giuliani, they were not afraid of Bloomberg. Rage sometimes wins out over fear. This reflex is such a famous black cultural signifier, originally associated with belligerent slaves and still so visible today, that it shouldn’t need explaining. Think of Denzel Washington in Glory defiantly taking that whipping rather than begging for shoes.
My favorite Hamer moment is the one that made her name, and which may shed some light on the defection from Mark Green. In 1964, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, there was an all-star cast asking the mostly black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to give up its attempt to replace the state’s segregationist delegation. Party unity, they said. The MFDP phones were bugged, as well as the rooms of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, and every word was reported to President Lyndon Johnson on an hourly basis. Hamer spoke and was so riveting that LBJ called an impromptu press conference to get her off the TV. He offered them a now infamous bad deal.
When the group asked King for advice, he said frankly that LBJ might help him and the movement if they gave in. “So, being a Negro leader,” he said, “I want you to take this, but if I were a Mississippi Negro, I would vote against it.”
King came clean on the fact that leaders have to advise staying with the party. We saw plenty of them chafing and waffling under this burden after the mayoral runoff. Clearly Freddy Ferrer and Al Sharpton couldn’t really call a boycott, and voters didn’t need to be told what to do anyway. The Democratic defectors, especially the 41 percent of Ferrer supporters who went for Bloomberg, thought it out like Mississippi Negroes.
The premise of Hamer-think is that you’ve already been kicked around. Saying no to Lyndon was, she said, not that big a deal when compared to what her people had been through just to register to vote: beatings, lost jobs, lost homes. Hamer personally suffered all of those and died young from Mississippi hardship. Black and Latino voters today could name a dozen races in which we’ve been asked to take little or nothing in party-unity scenarios, and we have usually been generous with our votes.
But this election was different from any I recall because the black and Latino votes split as some voters opted to punish Green. Dems usually expect to get 85 percent of the black votes. Likewise, expectation was that Hispanics in general and in the Bronx in particular would be delivered for Green. His appalling campaign, assuming it had our votes, pushed indifference until the Hamer reflex kicked in.
It wasn’t just that Green was aloof, arrogant, and unlikable, which he was. We sucked it up for the grim Mike Dukakis, who bombed against Bush. It wasn’t Bloomberg’s money and ads—although the promo repeating Green’s post-WTC claim,”I would have done better than Rudy,” was withering. Money didn’t make it happen for the likes of Ronald Lauder, Michael Huffington, Pete DuPont, or even Ross Perot. Lord knows the Rudy ads didn’t bring over black folks. And yet it was shocking nonetheless when people I know—mostly black and one or two whites—began saying they and everyone they knew would switch to Bloomberg. After all, Mark Green started out with the ultimate progressive résumé.
Before September 11, Green’s biggest problem with progressive blacks I hear from was that he didn’t seem to have any history of working with people of color in decision-making positions. But what’s new? How many of the white Democratic candidates out there in July had any high-level people of color working with them? Then while Green said repeatedly he had “been to every community” in the city, it became obvious that Ferrer knew something about living in them. Ferrer gained strength by saying that those who’d been ignored and who’d suffered during Giuliani should be part of the next government. Right away the papers started telling us that he was not reaching out to whites—borderline racist maybe?
I am told that Ferrer played the race card by embracing his obvious base. The New York Times and others said whites weren’t hearing anything from Ferrer, and blacks and Latinos said they weren’t hearing anything from Green. But the situations seem very different. Ferrer should have pitched more to white voters’ economic jitters for starters, but he certainly didn’t benefit from a press indulging in white stereotyping or from dubiously coded ads. And he never looked desperate.
Green not only failed to address our communities, he made specific mistakes:
Green had to have known that blacks and Latinos would back off when he started parading former police commissioner William Bratton around to show toughness on crime after his years being tough on police brutality. And he was intransigent, saying Bratton was “widely respected across the city.”
Caving in to Rudy was stupid, unnecessary, and, to many of us, alarming. We were supporting him as a remedy to Rudy, not a welcome mat. And yes, balls do count. It’s unfortunate that we have lived in conditions that required great courage of our leaders, but we have known many. Black and Latino leaders have had a regular diet of ridicule, loathing, death threats, and worse. Being afraid of Rudy, or even of keeping him waiting—no respect.
After the World Trade Center attack, Green tried to show how realistic he could be about the coming financial disaster. If a man not only gives it up to Rudy but also surrenders hope on his agenda, what could we expect later on?
The “borderline irresponsible” ad he directed at Ferrer let people know it was all going downhill. It buzzed with questions hurled against working people of color at all class levels.
After the runoff, Green snubbed the “other New York” camp and union leaders while seeking unity for his campaign. He made no acknowledgments of our communities’ needs in order to broaden his base, relying instead on listing the blacks on board.
Green really should have repudiated any use of hate literature. Yet his crew are still on TV denying that anything circulated to Jewish voters was racist. He should have fired those aides who met with Brooklyn Dems about using Sharpton as a tar brush. But he took advantage of a racially charged atmosphere, abetted by newspaper cartoons and rhetoric depicting Sharpton and Ferrer in stereotypes that have gotten people killed from Mississippi to Nazi Germany.
Anyone should say “not in my name” to crap from the 200-year-old catalog of racial objectification that directly preceded periods of lynchings from Reconstruction to the 1930s. This is how Japanese Americans ended up in camps, and what we hope to resist for Arab Americans today. To have accepted racism’s largesse and played to it is heinous and unforgivable.
Green’s post-runoff ads were tawdry (“Kill it!”), or cheesy, like the black radio spot with a sham Sapphire reeling off how “we” fought for the vote and so should use it for Green. Yikes. While Green feared whites would think he was pandering by even being seen with Sharpton, there is no other word for that ad.
In 1964 it was about stopping Barry “What’s Wrong With Being Right?” Goldwater, and Lyndon Johnson ran with slogans you couldn’t use today, like “All the Way With LBJ” and the anti-Goldwater “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.” Fannie Lou Hamer said she’d rather go home than take a deal that was not what she promised the people in Mississippi—a role in the process. She did, and in 1968, black Mississippians had their day.