March 7th was the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the first attempt by black protesters to march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to demand voting rights. Their march was brutally halted by Alabama state troopers acting under the orders of Gov. George Wallace. The protesters weren't deterred. On March 25, 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands to the completion of the 54-mile pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery. Dr. King rightfully described the protest as "a shining moment in the conscience of man." The march solidified support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Prior to 1965, there might have been three black mayors nationally. In 2003, the National Conference of Black Mayors put the total number of black mayors at over 500. During the 1960s, there were fewer than 10 black U.S. representatives. Today there are 43. Since 1965, there have been three black state governors. Nationwide there are over 10,000 black elected officials. There is no question that blacks have been successful in the political arena, recently capping off that success with the election of a black president. It shouldn't be left out that since the '60s, there has been a major transformation among whites. Much of black political success could not have been achieved without white votes.
Black leaders stress the importance of political power and getting out the vote, but we might ask how important political power is to the ordinary black person. As a start toward answering that question, we might examine black life in cities where blacks hold considerable political power. Detroit is the nation's most dangerous city. Rounding out Forbes magazine's 2013 list of the 10 most dangerous cities are Oakland, California; St. Louis; Memphis, Tennessee; Stockton, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Baltimore; Cleveland; Atlanta; and Milwaukee. According to a recent American Community Survey, by the U.S. Census Bureau, the 10 poorest cities with populations of more than 250,000 are Detroit, with 33 percent of its residents below the poverty line; Buffalo, New York, 30 percent; Cincinnati, 28 percent; Cleveland, 27 percent; Miami, 27 percent; St. Louis, 27 percent; El Paso, Texas, 26 percent; Milwaukee, 26 percent; Philadelphia, 25 percent; and Newark, New Jersey, 24 percent. In addition to poverty, there is grossly inferior education and high welfare dependency in these cities.
The most common feature of these cities is that for decades, all of them have had Democratic administrations. Some cities — such as Detroit, Buffalo, Newark and Philadelphia — haven't elected a Republican mayor for more than a half-century. What's more is that in most of these cities, blacks have been mayors, chiefs of police, school superintendents and principals and have dominated city councils.
In 2008, we saw the election of a black president. Blacks came out in historic numbers to vote for Barack Obama. Many Americans believed that the election of a black president meant that problems of race would be solved and we were moving toward a "post-racial" society. Evidence from the past six years points otherwise.
You might ask, "What's the point, Williams?" Let's be clear about what I am saying and not saying. I am not suggesting that there's a causal relationship between crime, poverty and squalor on the one hand and Democratic and black political power on the other. Nor am I suggesting that blacks ought to vote Republican. What I am saying is that if one is strategizing on how to improve the lives of ordinary — and particularly the poorest — black people, he wants to leave off his high-priority to-do list the election of Democrats and black politicians. Also to be left off the to-do list is a civil rights agenda.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock to finding solutions is the widely held vision that the major problem confronting blacks is discrimination. I am not arguing that every vestige of discrimination has been eliminated. I am arguing that the devastating problems facing a large proportion of the black community are not civil rights problems. The solutions will not be found in the political or civil rights arena.