The Paradox of Reform: Black Politics and the Democratic Party

portrait of Jesse Jackson

Burnham Ware

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

The central dilemma confronting black politics, especially in the South in the 1980s, is the paradox of reform.


There have been undeniable achievements in the struggle for black equality in every Southern state. Since 1964, the number of black elected officials in the U.S. has increased from 104 to about 5,500. Major Southern cities — Atlanta, New Orleans, Birmingham — which vigorously maintained Jim Crow have had black mayors for years. In the decade between 1960 and 1970, the estimated percentage of blacks in the total number of registered voters soared: in Alabama, from 7.1 to 19.2 percent; in South Carolina, from 10.7 to 24.5 percent; in Mississippi, from less than 1 percent to 30.5 percent. The black electorate is such a decisive factor in state and local elections that even former arch-segregationist George C. Wallace aggressively courted black voters in his successful 1982 gubernatorial campaign in Alabama. Socially, racial segregation still exists, but its crudest manifestations have largely disappeared.

The basic and bitter irony is that the structural or institutional basis for racism remains, and in some respects has become worse in recent years. Thousands of black-owned small farms go bankrupt every year across the South, as the rural poor flock to urban areas of employment. Despite the growth of new industries and human service-oriented businesses, black joblessness rates in many Southern towns now rival those in Harlem and Chicago 's South Side. Politically, dozens of black elected officials, such as former Tchula, Mississippi, mayor Eddie Carthan, are the victims of harassment and legal indictment. The number of blacks imprisoned in Southern penitentiaries has increased dramatically and almost one million of the region's 14.5 million blacks are arrested every year. Local patterns of political repression and extralegal racist violence are reinforced by the Reagan administration's vocal opposition to civil rights.

Thus the root causes of racial discrimination, poverty, and unemployment, remain permanently in place, while the illusion of black equality is perpetuated within the public discourse. Qualitatively, the paradox of reform confronts the black freedom movement with new political and economic challenges for which the rhetoric and tactics of the "We Shall Overcome" period are inadequate.

The acceleration of systematic attacks against blacks has produced a variety of suggestions for the future of black political activism. In general, black political debate in the 1980s is characterized by its focus on three theoretical and strategic points.

First, what future directions should black economic policy take, for the South and the nation? Is it premature to discuss a democratic socialist option, or is a "neo-Booker T. Washington" approach of black capitalism more appropriate in the age of Reaganomics?

Second, how can we best relate our concerns about ethnicity and social organization to public policy? Is a black nationalist approach, which eschews biracial coalitions, meaningless in a post-civil rights period?

Third, these two concerns merge into an infinitely more complex set of questions about the utility of electoral politics itself. Is there an "electoral road" to black liberation in the United States? Can a strategy based within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party successfully consolidate the civil rights gains of the '60s, and provide the basis for a more radical socioeconomic agenda for the future? Or, to restate a question Malcolm X posed in a Detroit speech in April, 1964: Is there really a choice between "the ballot or the bullet" in the struggle for black freedom?


Owen Brooks, a director of the Delta Ministry of Greenville, Mississippi, represents one current of black contemporary protest thought. A veteran of the 1966 Meredith March, Brooks has organized black poor and working class people in the impoverished Delta counties for almost two decades. Brooks's basic political position can be characterized as "radical" (i.e., anti-corporate), "black nationalist," and "nonelectoral." Since his involvement in the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace (see page 94), Brooks has been a critic of corporate capitalism. With the economic recession of 1982-83, he predicted, "More whites will fall from the upper echelons of society into the ranks of the poor; as will many more middle-class blacks." Brooks suggests, however, that the bulk of white society will not support any fundamental change in the capitalist political economy. Therefore blacks must create their own self-sustained economic institutions which will generate the means of group subsistence. Staunchly critical of desegregation's effects, he argues that biracial coalitions are not possible over the long run within a racist culture and society.

Brooks bluntly condemns the notion of an electoral road to black liberation. "Our people get dragged into a series of disappointments via electoral politics," Brooks protests. "There are two schools of thought" on black political change. "One is that you can change the system from the inside . . . that you have to elect a pretty, three-piece-suit nigger with four years of schooling, and get him inside." Brooks complains, however, that this tactic always fails, "because there is no mechanism within the black community that he is accountable to. We don't have the time and resources within the black community to engage in fruitless kinds of political endeavors."

When asked for an alternative approach, Brooks predicts that "black people are going to vote in ever diminishing numbers." A nonelectoral "black political instrument," he argues, could emerge as an "ongoing, living mechanism that attends to all of the aspects of black life." This nontraditional organization would concentrate on developing consumer and producer cooperatives to house and feed thousands of low-income people and to advance "independent political thought" within the black community.

Predictably, Brooks views any active relationship with the Democratic Party as antithetical to blacks' interests. He argues that black Mississippi "leaders such as Aaron Henry and Charles Evers have used the movement to advance their own political careers. They've led the black community down the wrong road — into the Democratic Party." Ironically, Brooks himself ran unsuccessfully for a seat on Greenville's City Council four years ago. The Delta Ministry's staff participates in voter registration efforts, and repeatedly uses traditional political forums to express the interests of their clients. Even for Brooks, a complete divorce from the electoral system is apparently neither possible nor desirable.

Another political strategy, which draws from a curious mixture of black nationalism, liberal corporatism, and electoral activism, is that of Jesse Jackson, leader of Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity). Like the black nationalists, Jackson accuses the Democratic Party of "taking the black vote for granted," while the Republican Party writes blacks off. "For Democrats," he continues, "race is increasingly becoming a litmus test and the central threat to the viability of the Party." Jackson observes that when black Democrats win primaries in South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, and other states, "significant numbers of white Democratic leaders and voters" support white Republicans over blacks. He notes that blacks regularly deliver one-fifth of the party's presidential vote, but receive "no shared proprietorship in the party — and investors without equity reap no dividends." Much of Jackson's devastating critique is reminiscent of Malcom X's "Ballot or the Bullet" thesis, and in a limited way could be seen as a justification for launching a black political party.

Instead, Jackson's black nationalistic rhetoric eventually culminates into a two-pronged "assault" on the system. First, he argues, black consumers must unite to force corporate concessions to the fragile black entrepreneurial class. "Corporate economic rape," to use Jackson's term, can be curtailed by forcing "joint trade agreements: between civil rights agencies and big businesses." Typical of Jackson's efforts was the four-year "covenant" signed between Operation PUSH and the Burger King Corporation on April 18, 1983. Worth an estimated $450 million, the food chain, which owns 3,400 restaurants worldwide, promised to increase the number of black employees, upgrade existing minority-owned restaurants, and significantly increase the number of black franchises.

Jackson himself quite candidly admits that the goal of these agreements is not socialism but an integrated private market economy. "Blacks and other minorities in this country need trade, not aid. The way to achieve equality is to allow minorities the opportunity to share in the trade with the whole community — to allow them to partake of the benefits." Jackson does not ask whether several black Horatio Algers, and the creation of a select group of black entrepreneurs will provide employment for millions of jobless women and men. Operation PUSH is a sophisticated attempt to reinforce the capitalist spirit among those whom the system has most brutally exploited.

The second and more dramatic aspect of Jackson's effort revolves on the concept of a black presidential campaign. In a strategy similar to his corporate covenants, the self-proclaimed "Country Preacher" is currently attempting to revive black hopes in the Democratic Party through a "semi-revolt." Jackson asserts that a black candidate would be able to "advance the issues of concern to Hispanics, women, the poor, and whites who are interested in social justice . . . as well as blacks. A black should run because bargainers without bases are beggars not brokers. . . . We cannot ride to freedom in Pharoah's chariot. . . . All of Santa's other reindeer have had their chance to pull and lead the sleigh and present their gifts to the American people. Now it may be time for Rudolph, who has consistently pulled more weight, to have his turn." In short, Jackson suggests that blacks' issues cannot be "put in the stomach of any of the present Trojan horses and expect them to come out once they are inside the White House fence."

More concretely, Jackson's purpose is to maximize black voter leverage within the Democratic party, and simultaneously establish Operation PUSH as the pre-eminent civil rights agency in the nation. The principal focus of this strategy is based in the South. In May 1983, at Jackson's request, the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus invited him to the state to initiate a "Southern crusade." The announced goals of the crusade are "to focus on the lack of enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act," to register an additional two million black Southern voters by November 1984, and "to pressure state party organizations who are accepting integrated voting but practicing segregated slatemaking [by] always putting whites at the top of the ticket." Crusade activists staged local rallies and meetings in Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Greensboro, Charlotte, and in other cities.

The black community is currently deeply divided over the viability of Jackson's strategy. Mary F. Berry, a former U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner, argues that the mere threat of a black presidential candidate forces every white aspirant to speak favorably to traditional black concerns. Berry feels that any criticism of Jackson's questionable career is moot, given that none of the "more qualified" black politicians — Julian Bond, Congressman Walter Fauntroy, former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, and others — had seized the "opportunity" to ride the crest of the black electoral wave so evident in the Chicago and Philadelphia mayoral races in 1983.

Randall Robinson, director of the influential lobbying group, Transafrica, asserts that white Democratic candidates did not address U.S. relations with the South African apartheid regime "until Jesse Jackson began to emerge as a potential candidate." Robinson emphasized the distinction between a "black presidential option" for 1984 and the particular merits and/or contradictions inherent in Jackson's own candidacy.

Even black nationalists who have traditionally stood outside of electoral politics voice support for this aspect of Jackson's strategy. Maulana Karenga, founder of the "Kwanzaa" celebration and a leading black nationalist theorist, states that an independent challenge inside the Democratic Party is absolutely essential. "The political timidity of the Democratic Party in the face of the Rightist tendency in the U.S. makes it imperative that blacks play their traditional role of raising the radical and progressive banner around which others can rally," Karenga argues. Only a black candidate "can produce a spirit of mobilization and organizational formations which can be used after the campaign in other projects." Jackson's campaign will "increase voter registration levels," despite the fact that "one should have no illusions of a black candidate winning."

Karenga's analysis is reinforced by the views of a black former aide to George Bush, Thaddeus Garret. The White House is convinced that Jackson's campaign would weaken former vice president Walter Mondale's chances of winning the nomination, thus giving the Democratic Party's mantle to conservative Senator John Glenn. Garret claims that Reagan's advisers are convinced that the President can defeat Mondale, but that they would lose against the former astronaut. On the other hand, in late August federal auditors announced that Operation PUSH and a subsidiary misappropriated over $ 1.7 million in government contracts and ordered Jackson to return the money. Education Secretary T.H. Bell declared in a press conference that this was simply "a routine audit," but added that "the reason there is all this publicity is the Reverend Jesse Jackson is considering running for President."

Similarly, in early 1983, when aides to Congressman Ronald V. Dellums held discussions with several activists concerning a Dellums presidential campaign, the black socialist and his staff were charged with drug use. Perhaps this is merely coincidental — but it is clear that the leaders of both major parties, for different reasons, wish to discourage any black candidacy. As Congressman John Conyers notes, white opposition to the strategy "seeks to head off the democratizing trends of the presidential selection process."


The third, and certainly the most conventional approach to black politics is represented by the NAACP, the agency of the black upper middle class. Joseph Madison, the NAACP director of voter education, argues that any black presidential candidacy would be "a hoax" that would drain black support away from liberal white candidates — particularly Mondale. "Anyone with any deal of sense knows that the chance of a black being elected — we're not talking about running, but being elected — is extremely remote."

Madison outlines the problem by pointing to figures indicating that a maximum of 778 delegates out of more than 3,900 to the Democratic National Convention in 1984 will be Afro-Americans. Over two-thirds of these black delegates will already be pledged to white candidates, "meaning that the maximum of delegate votes that a black candidate should depend on would be 250." Madison simply recommends that civil rights groups concentrate on registering an additional seven million voters by November 1984 — enough to shift the balance of power significantly in a national election. Implicit in this approach to black politics is the assumption that a black presidential candidate could not obtain enough support among other constituencies — feminists, liberals, progressive labor unions, Latinos, and the left — to win. It defines "politics" in purely electoral terms, despite the fact that many of the meaningful gains registered by the desegregation movement two decades ago occurred in the streets, through nonviolent demonstrations, marches, pickets, and other protest actions. It also implies a type of "proxy" politics, wherein blacks' interests would have to be represented by white politicians.


What is particularly striking about all of these strategies is their profound pessimism. Brooks and other radical black nationalists assume that most whites are irredeemably racist, that authoritarian or conservative politics will define the social terrain for some time to come, and that the electoral apparatus is alien to blacks' interests. Jackson's challenge to the Democratic Party's leadership has not yet advanced a program of radical social reform which qualitatively departs from that articulated by his uncharismatic white counterparts, the "Sominex Seven." The NAACP's bland emphasis on voter registration implies an acceptance of the liberal status quo, a resignation about serving as a loyal component of a fragmented New Deal/Great Society coalition which is increasingly irrelevant to the 1980s.

Each of the positions is a reaction to the contemporary crisis, rather than a qualitative advance in strategy. In any effort to find political answers in this period of rapid and confusing social change, we must first ask the right questions. Where should we begin?

The first and most essential question in understanding the paradox of reform concerns the contradictory nature of the Democratic Party and its relationship to black people. During most of the electoral experience of blacks, the party which claimed our allegiance was the Republican Party. Few blacks voted for a Democratic presidential candidate until 1940. More than 40 percent of all black voters supported Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Democratic Party officials and office holders worked hand-in-hand with white vigilantes when I was a teenager to keep my family members from voting. White Democrats did nothing when my wife's cousin was lynched outside Social Circle, Georgia, in late 1981. White Mississippi Democrats did virtually nothing to elect a black state senator, Robert Clark, to the House of Representatives in November 1982, despite blacks' support for their old arch-enemy, John Stennis. Unquestionably, the Democratic Party contains some of the most racist, pro-corporate, and sexist politicians this nation can produce. Yet this same party includes a progressive, antiracist, and democratic bloc which represents an American version of "social democracy."

This "party-within-the-party " articulates the material interests and political demands of blacks, as well as those of Latinos, feminists, gays and lesbians, labor, and peace organizations. Because no massive socialist presence in the U.S. national politics has existed since 1920, most black elected officials are "invisible social democrats," for all practical purposes. They do not consciously identify with European social democracy, and their own history is grounded in a pragmatic and often eclectic practice which is devoid of socialist, much less Marxian, theory. Nevertheless, the public policies they propose — from Dellums's extensive national health care bill to Major Owens's recent constitutional amendment calling for a guaranteed job for all American workers — directly parallel legislative reforms enacted by labor and socialist parties throughout the world.

Of course, distinctions must be made here: Dellums in the British political context would be Tony Benn, and Andrew Young would be Roy Jenkins — but they are acting in the very real world of American political culture, where Marxism is usually equated with Soviet or Chinese communism. The democratic left inside the black community does not need specifically to identify itself with "socialism" per se to exercise influence among black voters. Most blacks run as Democrats because, given the history of black folk since the New Deal, it makes "common sense" to do so. They operate as a democratic and antiracist political current within an admittedly undemocratic and often racist political formation. But when circumstances dictate that the interests of blacks will be better served by a third party candidate, an independent, or even a liberal Republican, black voters and their representatives often revolt against their party.

Numerous incidents from the past several years illustrate this pattern of revolt. In a Mississippi election in 1978, for example, over 80 percent of the state's black electorate voted for an independent black candidate, Charles Evers, for the U.S. Senate, splitting the Democratic vote. As a result, a white conservative Republican, Thad Cochran, was elected. Black voters had concluded that there was no meaningful difference between the two candidates, and that an unsuccessful black challenge in the general election would do more to advance their interests in the long run than their becoming "yellow dog Democrats" in this particular election. This is not to suggest that the majority of black voters is ready to form either an all-black or a multiracial liberal-left political party; the avenues for meaningful reform within the existing two-party system have not yet been exhausted.

It is clear, however, that the actual political behavior of black workers and the poor in general implies a far greater sophistication than that exhibited by the NAACP leadership and others who cling to the idealistic notion that loyalty to white Democratic Party leaders transcends black electoral independence. When properly mobilized, the black electorate will turn out in massive numbers to support any candidates who advance their economic, social, and political interests, and will block those Democrats and Republicans alike who betray those interests.

Given the actual class status of blacks as a group, this independence means in practice that blacks form a decisive bloc for a uniquely American version of social democracy — without being called "socialism" by name. Moreover, for most black workers, voting is and will remain for the foreseeable future the central essence of "politics." Despite the chimeras of black nationalism, the hard-won democratic rights of blacks are deeply cherished within the Afro-American community, and the battle against Reaganism and institutional racism will continue to manifest itself as essentially a struggle within the existing political system. The fight for democracy thus becomes a battle against the racists and conservatives of both major parties.


We are now witnessing a fundamental and long overdue shift in the American political system. There have been others. The 1896 election contest between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley established the Republicans as the dominant party for the next 35 years, buried Southern and Western populism, and created the basis for the solid Democratic South and Jim Crow. The elections of 1932 and 1936 created the New Deal coalition, which in turn coincided with the long and difficult process of creating a black voice in national public policy.

Despite initial appearances, 1980 was no watershed electoral year (though 1984 may well be). Nevertheless, there were some interesting and perhaps ominous developments in the Carter-Reagan race. Over 90 percent of all black voters supported Carter, while only 35 percent of all whites supported him. Fifty-six percent of all whites voted for Reagan, and in many Southern states (except Georgia) whites voted in proportions of nearly two to one for the California Republican. Beyond the election of 1984, if the current mobilization of black voter registration continues, the weight of the black electorate will have a major position in the viability of the Democratic Party, and within the public policies of the national government. The black voter will be the central component in transcending the limitations of New Deal liberalism.

To resolve the paradox of reform, black political activists (and progressive whites) must advance an "inside-outside" strategy for social reform. We must actively campaign for those progressives advocating programs which go beyond the old liberalism, both inside the Democratic Party primaries (against Democratic centrists and conservatives) and in general elections (against most Republicans). We must build a powerful, multiracial coalition of labor, women, and other potential allies inside the progressive party-in-the-party. Yet we cannot transform the system by working on the inside alone. Outside challenges must raise the issues of racism, sexism, poverty, and powerlessness and must occur simultaneously with electoral work — teach-ins, demonstrations, neighborhood organizing, civil disobedience, and every form of nonelectoral protest. Both aspects of inside-outside work should be guided by a vision of human equality and greater democracy: guaranteed health care, full employment, universal education, decent public housing, workplace democracy, a nonsexist and antiracist society — along with massive reductions in national spending for the mechanisms of war, foreign intervention, and U.S. corporate domination of the Third World.

Much of the viability of the "inside-outside" theory rests with the left's ability to maximize voter turnouts at every election and to expand the national electorate through extensive voter registration and education campaigns. Poor people and national minorities often do not vote because they cannot see that it will produce any meaningful changes in their lives or in their communities. In Chicago, for example, black voter turnouts in South Side wards ranged from 40 to 22 percent until the late 1970s. Every political observer in Chicago knew that former Congressman Harold Washington did not want to run in the mayoral election as of mid-1982. What convinced Washington to run was the registration of an additional 150,000 black and Hispanic voters. Their mobilization, culminating in a nearly 80 percent turnout in the elections, shifted both Washington's campaign and the dynamics of Chicago politics to the left.

Conversely, any decline in grassroots mobilization creates the possibility of a restoration of conservative power. Fifteen years ago, Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland on the basis of an 81.7 percent black voter turnout. When Stokes betrayed his constituents' program, confidence in electoral political work declined, neighborhood groups began to bicker with each other, and finally a white Republican was elected mayor in 1971. By 1978, black voter turnouts in Cleveland had dropped to 30.8 percent.

The examples of Chicago and Cleveland indicate that black activists and the left should create independent political structures which can do three things: educate the oppressed to constantly demand their rights, promote massive electoral participation, and maintain pressure on elected officials to carry out progressive programs. Independent grassroots structures must never be tied to the Democratic Party, but they can use the party's primary process to get their agendas into the public discourse, and to elect their own people. Occasionally, independent races for elective office will be viable at local levels outside of the Democratic Party. The question of working "within" the Democratic Party is fundamentally a tactical one; our principles will not be compromised by such activity, so long as the goal of human equality and social transformation guides our practice, and our programs articulate the interests of the oppressed.

1984 confronts the democratic left with a series of problems. Much of the focus will be placed on the presidential arena. Despite a black candidacy — which despite its flaws merits at least critical support — in November 1984 we will be faced with a choice between Reagan and Mondale or Glenn. It's certain that the overwhelming majority of black people will repudiate Reaganism, and that any third party candidacy will be viewed as irrelevant or sectarian. Thus the energies of activists must be focused at the municipal and state level, building wherever possible upon the "coalition of conscience" constituencies which were mobilized by the August 1983 March on Washington. Independent candidates must be run in nonpartisan races, in Democratic Party primaries, and/or occasionally outside both parties, depending primarily upon local conditions and the prior establishment of progressive political structures and multiracial/multiclass coalitions. Sometimes we will have no alternative except to embrace the "lesser evil." The classic case here is provided by North Carolina, where Governor James B. Hunt is challenging well-financed, incumbent Senator Jesse Helms. Hunt is undeniably a poor alternative, but Helms's pivotal role as the leading national ideologue for racism and reaction may well induce progressives to support Hunt. This must not rule out, however, a progressive challenge against Hunt inside the Democratic Party's primary.

Our ability to overturn the historical limitations of our political consciousness, and assert our optimism in the capacity of blacks, poor people, women, and labor to mobilize themselves — both within the electoral system and outside of it — may determine the future course of American politics and society. Our capacity to transcend the structural limits of reform depends in part upon our active intervention inside the system. Our opportunity to create a unique American form of democratic socialism and the basis for human equality rests with our efforts both to challenge and to transform the Democratic Party and also to create a permanent grassroots protest movement divorced from electoral politics.