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“It's insulting that none of us who have been responsible for most registration and turnout are at the table determining priorities. – Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., Rainbow/PUSH Coalition

“There is something wrong when groups who have closed the gap on enfranchisement with our track record and our history of protecting the vote are not getting funding.” – Melanie L. Campbell, Executive Director, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP)

“There appears to be a dedicated campaign by the party leadership, the Kerry campaign and now ancillary funding organizations to build some political distance between themselves and key traditional leaders of the party base.” – Political scientist Ron Walters, board member, NCBCP

Whatever happens on November 2, traditional African American leadership faces a crisis of historic proportions, a day of reckoning that has been approaching for more than three decades. Having virtually shut down the activist wing of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement in favor of electoral and broker politics at the dawn of the Seventies, Black leadership now finds itself blackballed from the $200 million-plus soft money Democratic campaign feast. Essentially, they have been sidelined from the only mass action game they chose to play.

Instead, 527 outfits jump-started by super-rich, Bush-averse benefactors like George Soros (net worth: $8 billion) dominate the street action in Black precincts throughout the 17 campaign “battleground” states. Paying $8 to $12 an hour for door-to-door canvassers, the New Jack 527s have supplanted (usurped might be a better word) the electoral functions previously performed by mainstream Black organizations such as the 84-member National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP), chaired by Patricia A. Ford. “The people who are doing the work are the community – only they are working for 527s,” said Ford, the former executive vice president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

With more than $80 million in funding, the Soros-backed voter mobilization 527 America Coming Together (ACT) has assumed leadership of the African American electoral army. The de facto commander is ACT CEO Steve Rosenthal, former AFL-CIO Political Director.

On the mass communications front, political messages are crafted and paid for through the Media Fund, which has raised and spent about $28 million dollars as of October 10.  The brainchild of former top Clinton aid Harold Ickes, the Media Fund is currently in the middle of a $5 million advertising campaign centered on Black-oriented radio. The fund’s president, Erik Smith, is a former aid to Missouri Democratic Congressman Richard Gephardt. Although selected African American individuals, consultants and public relations and media firms have been recruited to the ACT and Media Fund voter mobilization and media projects, the white folks are firmly in charge of the methodology and the message.

Patricia Ford’s NCBCP, with a 28-year history of electoral organizing including Operation Big Vote and Black Youth Vote, was left out in the cold. Its modest goal to raise $8 million dollars for “voter protection”  – ensuring that citizens who show up at the polls are allowed to cast their ballots – now seems beyond reach and out of time. As a result, said Ford, “the election is in peril.”

Net Loss of Black Votes Possible

Despite phenomenal numbers of new Black registrants (see , “Black Voter Registration Skyrocketing,” September 30), a repeat of the Republicans’ mass Black vote theft of 2000 could result in a net loss at the polls.  “What we are trying to do in these last days is to get enough money to have poll watchers on the ground,” said Ford. “Based on our intelligence nobody has a significant effort to protect that right on the ground.” In the last presidential election, 1.2 to 1.3 million Black votes were lost to intimidation, fraud and purges of the rolls. Although the NCBCP operates a hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE) capable of fielding 200,000 calls simultaneously, and supportive legal groups plan to field tens of thousands of lawyers to respond to voter complaints, “nobody is protecting that voter at the polling place,” warned Ford. “The legal effort is after the fact. The election will have come and gone, and we will still be in the same place as after the 2000 election.”

“We need to train people on what to look out for, and where to look,” she continued. “We could have trained seniors,” but now there is very little time left.

Meanwhile, the GOP will field thousands of volunteer disrupters in Black and Brown precincts who have been trained to “hold people to the letter of the law” – a code for aggressive voter intimidation. Ohio and other Republican-controlled states promise to follow Florida’s 2000 lead in 2004. “Lawyers are fine, but when a person goes to the polling place and gets turned away, someone needs to be right there to assist them,” said Ford. “As it stands now, people are relying on that person to call the Hotline, instead of just going home.”

Experience tells us that untold thousands will simply leave in disgust.

is aware of a letter sent to moneyman George Soros and his richest friends by Ms. Ford and three other co-chairs of the umbrella group, Unity ’04 – Urban League President Marc Morial, Dorothy Height, of the National Council of Negro Women, and University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters – in which they asked only that a funded division of labor be arranged, so that traditional Black organizations might concentrate on thwarting the theft of Black votes “on the ground,” in Ford’s words. To date, there has been no substantial response from the top five pro-Democrat 527s. Said one Black voter mobilization official: “They appear to take their cues from [Steve] Rosenthal and [Harold] Ickes.”

Insults from the DNC

Whoever is sending the signals, hostility to traditional Black leadership is broadcasting at full power from the Democratic National Committee – ruled, like the Kerry campaign, by the corporate-backed Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). By law, a “firewall” must exist between the 527s and the Democratic National Committee’s campaign operations. But of course, no wall can separate persons of like political minds. Black Democratic National Committeeman Ben Johnson felt confident enough in his slavish role to insultingly dismiss Black leadership’s grievances. Newhouse News Service recorded Johnson’s outburst in late September:

"Those complaints are coming from old-line folks who make money off controversy," said Deputy Democratic National Chairman Ben Johnson, who is active in the black voter registration efforts. The key to winning in 2004 will be turnout, not registration, Johnson said, although the party is not neglecting registration.

"There's a change in the way everything is being done," Johnson said. "This is a new day, and we have a number of hip-hop artists involved in voter registration."

Maybe money is not flowing to old-line groups "like they'd like it to be flowing," Johnson said, "but people in neighborhoods across the country recognize the importance of registration, and they are not waiting for somebody to give them a dime to register."

Pat Ford finds Johnson’s comments “baffling,” since the NCBCP’s current concerns revolve around Black voter protection at the polls, not registration. And effective turnout requires voter protection.

When asked on October 13 to comment on his deputy’s remarks, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said he was “unaware” of the Johnson’s statements. Florida Black Congresswoman Corrine Brown, preparing to join Representatives Alcee Hastings and Kendrick Meek on a four-day “Our Vote, Our Future” bus tour of the state, said: “We’ve got to make sure that everyone feels involved in this process. Clearly, there has been some miscommunication.”

In truth, Johnson’s outburst was simply an expression of his utter contempt for mainstream African American organizations, a deep animosity that was nurtured and rewarded during his eight years as a Black gatekeeper at Bill Clinton’s White House. According to Johnson’s official Democratic Party profile, he served as “point person for promoting the President's race relations goals.” Now, in 2004, Clinton’s crowd is getting their wish: Traditional Black leadership has been defunded, cut out of the campaign.

No, Clinton was not the first Black president. But he was the first DLC president. John Kerry hopes to become the second, and we have no choice but to help him.

The DLC, formed in the mid-1980s to suppress the voices of Blacks and labor in the party – and as a direct reaction to the hugely successful Black voter registration drives that accompanied Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns – is determined to keep organized Black America at arms length, and broke. Should Kerry win, traditional Black leadership will be declared irrelevant. As Freedom Rider columnist Margaret Kimberley wrote on September 30: “The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Leadership Council will crow that their dubious strategies were in fact brilliant. Their claims should not go unchallenged.”

Letters of Indignation

Ron Walters, a co-chair of Unity ’04, brooked no insults from Harold Ickes’ Media Fund, whose President, Erik Smith, had the temerity to request “a quote we can use from you for our press materials.” Walters fired back a letter to Media Fund founder Harold Ickes. The NNPA’s Hazel Trice Edney, in an excellent piece of journalism, was the first to reveal the text of the letter:

"Since the 1970s the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation has operated Operation Big Vote and in recent years Black Youth Vote and in this election cycle, the Unity 04 Campaign has been established, staffed and has attempted to raise funds for its activities with meager success. So, we are now to understand that The Media Fund, an entity that is completely unknown in the Black community, but which contains some Black PR firms, has a plan for Black messaging and the resources to enact it."

"But it is a plan that has been drafted outside of our community, that is to say, without the collective sign-off of any significant collection of Black leaders. Therefore, why should we accept it and cooperate with it? This is an arrogant and divisive usurpation of power and it is destructive of our efforts that began most recently in the Civil Rights movement, where the efforts of Blacks to provide their own leadership in the act of political participation was understood to be the source of their power in the policy system as well."

Dr. Walter’s letter is an eloquent and historically important piece of Black political literature, requiring further quotation. He challenged the Media Fund’s pretensions of connectedness to Black America – as if authenticity can be purchased in the PR and media marketplace.

“…I am not aware of the reputations of the firms that you cite that have done the content work, with the exception of Cornell Belcher. In fact, it is a new development that we have many such public relations firms in the Black community these days, but I am not at all convinced that some have any other interests at stake than the maintenance of the viability of their operations. This is another way of saying that simply because there are Black PR firms involved, is no assurance that they are connected with the mainstream direction of the Black community….

“The entry into the field of this new initiative to be managed by The Media Fund is just another blow to the infrastructure that was being developed by these organizations in coalition, but like the activity of America Coming Together, amounts to yet another slight to our community as they utilize hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to operationalize their own view of what is important for us to do with our political participation. Thus, there is a special sensitivity that naturally arises when another such effort emerges outside of the mainstream of the black community and seeks to play a role in organizing the black vote, this time by controlling the messaging process….

“The control of such resources outside of the black community is not consistent with fraternal relations, it is not consistent with a forward-looking and positive relationship as blacks become an ever larger share of the Democratic Party base, and it is not consistent with progressive politics as a definition of democratic practice. To call it what it is, the control of these resources is an extension of a colonial relationship that we have attributed to Republicans, but which Democrats have all too often, of late, been tempted to operationalize.”

But of course, the DLC faction of the party does not want Blacks to become “an ever larger share” of the base – yet it cannot win without near-total Black support. Therefore, they attempt to create the illusion of an “alternative” Black infrastructure, while starving and shunning the real thing – very much as the GOP does with its appointed Black cadre. That’s why Black DNC operative Ben Johnson’s contemptuous remarks about “old line” Black organizations sound damn near Republican. He’s playing Condoleezza to Kerry. A new crowd of white-sanctioned Blacks is to be contracted. As Ron Walters puts it, “they have tried to substitute people with Palm Pilots and Blackberries for the success we had over the years."

Walters’ letter to Ickes concludes: “Leadership matters and in the final analysis, to let the control of the black vote drift into the hands of forces outside of the black community is a dangerous situation for John Kerry, but fundamentally for the black community itself.”

Noting that Black organizations have traditionally fielded unpaid election volunteers, NCBCP’s Pat Ford wonders what kind of expectations the 527s will leave in their wake after they fold their tents in the Black community on November 2. “Now that everybody’s getting paid, I’m not sure that’s healthy. How will people respond when there’s no money?”

The Crisis is Now

Traditional African American leadership is reaping the shriveled fruits of the narrow path it strode down three decades ago, when the “movement” was demobilized in favor of brokered politics and periodic electioneering.  Until now, Blacks were invited to the two- and four-year Democratic electoral party, but not to the permanent power party. Under the new regime, traditional Black organizations have been disinvited from the electoral party, as well. The goal is clear: The DLC means to prevent Black groups from taking credit for a massive African American voter turnout against Bush. By sidelining these organizations during the campaign, the DLC hopes to cripple their capacity to mobilize constituencies between elections. Since electoral and broker politics has been so central to mainstream Black organizations for the past 30-plus years, the game will, essentially, be over.

There is no choice for traditional Black groups but to fight their way out of this terminal impasse. The solution has nothing to do with a realignment of party loyalties – African Americans are hugely invested in the Democratic Party.  Virtually all of nearly 10,000 Black elected officials are Democrats. It is African American community organizational structures that are in crisis – the fight over election funding simply serves to dramatize a long curve of decline that began when strategies of mass mobilization were, in effect, placed in hibernation. Black leadership must remake itself, and stir the people awake.

They must join the digital age. Three years ago, when was in the planning stages, we were shocked to discover the generally abysmal level of Internet use among traditional Black organizations. Not just poor Blacks, but the groups that claimed to speak to and for the masses, were stuck on the far side of the digital divide. It was clear to us then that this cyber deficit was the result of Black leadership placing a low priority on mass mobilization of even their wired, middle class constituents. They were content in their dependence on outside sources of funding.

Howard Dean’s campaign proved that the Internet is a uniquely effective tool for both funding and mobilization. (See “How the Internet Invented Howard Dean.”) Traditional Black leadership can reinvent itself as a truly independent force, but only if it combines the broadest outreach with real programs of mobilization – the only route to solvency, and to regaining the grudging respect of Black people’s adversaries.

As it stands now, we have once again been Rodney Dangerfielded.



October 14 2004
Issue 109

is published every Thursday.

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