The Importance of Black Legislators

The Importance of Black Legislators

By Alex Willingham

Vol. 7, No. 5, 1985, pp. 3-5

The Southern state legislature, once the incarnation of backwardness in Southern politics, now stands to become a center for innovation in regional affairs. The formerly all-male, all-white, one-party bastions of prejudice and reactionary social policy have been changing in recent years. More change lies ahead. Political moderates, Republicans, women, and labor representatives have won seats, lending a bit of diversity to the legislatures. Blacks, whose lack of power has characterized the South’s “peculiarity,” have been elected in unprecedented numbers.

Before 1963, when Leroy Johnson served in the Georgia senate, no black had won election to a Southern legislature since early in this century. Whites in the post-Reconstruction

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era eliminated blacks from public office–indeed, from registration and voting. Disfranchisement of blacks (and by the early 1900s, of poor whites as well) was the linchpin of the modern South’s undemocratic order. The effects of disfranchisement have been shared not only by Southern state legislatures but by county and city governments.

Today 176 blacks–almost half of all black legislators in the country–serve in the legislative chambers of the eleven Southern states. Change, once begun, has been swift and dramatic. In Louisiana, where blacks account for nearly a third of the population, there was only one black in the legislature as late as 1970. Today, there are eighteen, one of whom has been selected to the second ranking position in the state’s lower house.

As important as these Southern changes have been, they co-exist with old continuities. For example, the racial composition of Southern state legislatures does not yet reflect the black population. Black legislators make up only ten percent of all Southern legislators, yet blacks exceed twenty percent of the South’s population. The forty-six member South Carolina senate received its first black member in 1983 (see Southern Changes, May/June 1983). The number increased to four in 1984, but an additional ten blacks would have to be elected before the senate would be representative of the state’s black population.

The situation is the same in the other Southern states. It would be necessary to more than double their current numbers for black legislators to achieve parity. In addition, reflective of continuing racial polarization, the overwhelming majority of those so far elected come from single-member districts composed primarily of black voters–districts created in recognition of the special difficulties facing black candidates.

And, resistance continues. The creation of single-member electoral districts has come under attack in North Carolina (see Laughlin McDonald’s article in this issue of Southern Changes) where state and Reagan Administration officials have defended, before the US Supreme Court, a state legislative election plan that would make tokens of single-member districts and black voting strength.

Recent resistance has also taken the form of Justice Department collusion with state and local white powerholders in a so-far unsuccessful two-year campaign involving the intimidation of rural black voters and the prosecution of voting rights activists in the Alabama Black Belt (see Southern Changes, May/June 1985).

Blacks who do win legislative office find the chambers that await them are fundamentally inhospitable to change. The accumulated wealth and practiced despotism of business interests make for fierce resistance or tempting accommodation. Setting out to represent the hopes of their largely poor and powerless constituencies, black legislators can find themselves stymied by the immovable, or swayed by the irresistible.

Winning Without A Majority

The problems and prospects facing Southern black legislators were discussed at a meeting in early November in Atlanta. Two questions dominated the talk of black legislators and their staffs: To what extent can the newly elected officials protect and expand their ranks? What can they do to be effective in their present situations?

“Winning Without a Majority,” a conference paper prepared by Steve Suitts addressed the question of effectiveness. “For continued strength and increased clout,” Suitts observed, “black legislators as a group cannot depend upon a growth of their numbers. They must find other means by which to make their current numbers count for more in the legislative process.” Several strategies were suggested: jawboning presiding officers, influencing the implementation of policy at the administrative agencies, proposing “local legislation”, creating study commissions, and blocking or changing legislative proposals that require an extraordinary majority (i.e., a two-thirds or three-fourths majority). Black state legislators now have the opportunity and the numbers in most Southern states to win some important issues without a majority of the votes. Suitts drew examples from several states; legislators in attendance suggested others.

Blacks in Southern Legislatures, 1985

State Reps. Senators
Alabama 19 5
Arkansas 4 1
Florida 10 2
Georgia 21 6
Kentucky 1 1
Louisiana 14 4
Mississippi 18 2
North Carolina 13 3
South Carolina 16 4
Tennessee 10 3
Texas 13 1
Virginia 5 2

Illustrative of one tactic are the Sanders Bills, so named for Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders of Selma. These “local bills,” passed as custom decrees by the Alabama legislature upon request of the legislators from the affected counties, allow local governments in Senator Sanders’ Black Belt district to change their method of county elections from at large to single member districts. The Sanders bills should insure proportional, bi-racial county and municipal governments in these majority black counties.

The effectiveness of black legislators will also be determined by their tenure. Seniority will not only make them more “equal” with their long-serving white colleagues but will let them look back on their own experiences, make adjustments, form alliances.

As for black increases in the present number of state legislators, certainly the numerical potential exists throughout the South. In Georgia, for example, which has the largest number (twenty-seven) of black legislators, an additional thirty-two would have to be elected before

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the racial make-up of the general assembly represented the state’s population. Black representation in the South Carolina Senate is only ten percent of what it would be if proportionate to the population; Mississippians would need to elect forty additional black legislators.

It seems clear, however, that the “easy” advances have already been made; the “tough” cases remain.

Most black representatives are elected in urban areas. Their districts have compact populations, ready availability of candidates, higher prospects for registration and voting, and a broader tolerance for bi-racial politics. These patterns are nearly reversed in rural areas where few blacks have been elected to the legislatures and where opposition has been most persistent in opposition to black political participation.

In the past, and at least through the 1990 census, most hopes for increasing the number of black legislators have lain and will lie with redistricting. Now, with a visible, if small, number of blacks among their ranks, white, Southern state legislators will claim even more reason to resist substantial additions. The presence of even a few blacks becomes a justification for no change.

Token change in the racial make-up of Southern legislatures will kill the promise of recent years. This would be tragic. In the coming decade, state policies will be crucial in dealing with plant closings, community development, job training, and in finding sources of money for health care and public education.

Business and corporate representatives are pressing their state legislative agendas with the intention of avoiding anything and everything which does not contribute to profitmaking. Moral guardian groups are intent on retaining the death penalty, assaulting welfare programs, and invading personal privacy. The election of black legislators–like any search for popular participation strategies–should speak to all Southerners who seek to counter the powers of reaction.

Alex Willingham lives in Shreveport, Louisiana. As a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, he is writing a book about Southern reapportionment.