The Vote and Change
Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, p. 4-9
These edited remarks are from a panel discussion held on political participation during last winter’s annual meeting of the Southern Regional Council. The participants, all with long involvement in the drive to expand political participation, included former SNCC leader and Georgia State Senator Julian Bond, former Little Rock mayor Lottie Shackelford, former Alabama legislator and national Democratic Party operative Tony Harrison and Texas voting rights activist Andrew Hernandez. All are members of the Southern Regional Council, Harrison and Shackelford are former presidents of the organization. Bond narrated the program, which was taped for television broadcast and is available on videocassette from the SRC.
JULIAN BOND: Ms. Shackelford, let’s begin with you. You were a high school student in Little Rock in 1954 when the Supreme Court said that separate but equal was against the law. Many believe that’s the beginning of the modern civil rights movement and the present day emphasis on the right-to-vote. What are your recollections of the political scene in Arkansas at that time?
LOTTIE SHACKELFORD: I think that Daisy Bates would be the first to say that she was merely trying to make certain that all students, particularly black students, had equal access for educational opportunities. And while the Court decision came down in ’54, the Little Rock schools went back and forth for three years as to when and how they were going to integrate. Then in 1957, of course, we had the Little Rock Nine who actually did integrate Central High School.
A lot of folk have asked, “Why nine?” I tell them that the number started off being 250, but as each year would pass, the number would drop. Some students no longer wanted to be a part. Some parents were being threatened about their children participating. So on that day in September 1957, there were only nine students still willing to go. Had the date been put off even one more day, we may have had eight or seven. But that did start an awakening-not just in Little Rock and the South-about what was needed to bring about equality and justice for all.
BOND: A moment ago you remarked that your father sold poll taxes, and a great many people won’t understand what that meant. What did you mean?
SHACKELFORD: You needed a poll tax to be eligible to vote. As opposed to registering to vote, you bought a poll tax.
BOND: How much did it cost?
SHACKELFORD: One dollar, at that time which was quite a bit of money. And I helped him sell poll tax receipts.
BOND: So he would buy a quantity and then sell them back to potential voters?
SHACKELFORD: Right. He always believed that folks should exercise their right to vote. And, that was his way of making a contribution. He’d go into the rural areas outside Little Rock and sell those poll tax receipts. Go into churches and neighborhoods.
That’s one of the things that black folk in Little Rock were quite complacent about at that time. In their view they didn’t feel they were being denied so much. And, I think that’s another reason the impact of the desegregation crisis in ’57 had such a meaning there. Too many people were satisfied with the way things were going. While in rural areas black folk were saying they could not vote, in Little Rock, if you bought a poll tax receipt, you could vote.
Somehow or another they saw that as equality because white folk couldn’t vote either without a poll tax receipt.
BOND: Do you recall any fear accompanying your father’s efforts when you got outside Little Rock, out in rural Arkansas? Do you remember people being afraid to buy a poll tax?
SHACKELFORD: No, but then he never ventured much farther than the central Arkansas area. He didn’t get down into the Delta area.
BOND: Mr. Harrison, you’re an Alabama native and it is in Alabama, and Selma particularly, in 1965 that a massive demonstration resulted, finally, in the passage of the Voting Rights Act from which stem most of the political protections evident about us all over the United States for a wide variety of groups today. What are your recollections of the period before ’65 leading up to the Selma-Montgomery march?
TONY HARRISON: I was too young to have a personal recollection of that. But my grandfather was a voter. And, he was a teacher and minister. My fondest recollection of him is not about voting, but about his reading. He was always reading. In the summer he would be sitting on the porch after he had done his chores, and he would be trying to read the paper and I would be up trying to disturb him from his reading. He’d just ignore me and keep right on going.
BOND: As an Alabama state Iegislator, you helped reapportion the state legislature, did you not?
HARRISON: I had watched very carefully the reapportionment process in 1970 and ’74. And subsequently I ran for the legislature and won. So I was active in the process following the 1980 Census in which we expanded the base of participation from that in ’74.
BOND: Could you have helped to create additional black representatives in the Alabama state house and senate had it not been for the Selma movement in ’65 and even what had happened in Little Rock in 1957?
HARRISON: I don’t think there was any political participation of any significance in the South. The South was very clear that the poll tax represented a process for the denial of the franchise to all but primarily white males. So without the Selma march which brought the Voting Rights Act, my own participation would not have been possible. Once we got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, we also had the litigating process that brought one-man one-vote and which then turned out to be the basis for all of the redistricting. If I’m not mistaken, that comes out of Tuskegee, Alabama.
BOND: A natural turn to Mr. Hernandez, whose organization works primarily with Hispanics in the southwestern part of the United States. It was 1972 that the Voting Rights Act was extended to cover Hispanics. What did that extension mean to the kind of work that you do now? Could it have happened without this extension, this widening of the pool, in effect?
ANDREW HERNANDEZ: Absolutely not. In the same way that the passage of the Voting Rights Act opened up the doors of political opportunity for blacks in the South, where they went from 2-3 percent of the electorate to 30 percent of the electorate in some of the states, with extension of the Voting Rights Act to Hispanics in the Southwest beginning in the early ’70s, we saw a dramatic change in Hispanic participation. As the barriers came down, Hispanic participation went up.
In the same way that blacks went from a people who couldn’t participate because they were shut out of the process, Hispanics went from a group who had the lowest registration rate and the lowest turnout rate in the country of any other group in the early ’70s to in the ’80s a group that has the highest registration and turnout rate. Frankly, prior to the extension of the Voting Rights Act to Hispanics, at a time when the population was literally booming, the actual number of Hispanics registered to vote went down. That’s pretty hard, to be tripling your population and actually go down in the number of people registered to vote.
BOND: Why did that happen?
HERNANDEZ: There was an induced apathy in our community. It was induced by an array of election devices
that shut Hispanics out of the political process; for instance, gerrymandering. When we first started our work in 1974, I was given the assignment to look at why Hispanics couldn’t win where they were in the majority. There were sixty-seven counties we identified in Texas that should have elected [Hispanic] county officials but that had not. That’s pretty distressing and we tended to blame our own people for it.
And when you got the leadership together and asked why we couldn’t win, somehow the finger was always pointed at apathy. That they were too poor to be organized.
What we found in those sixty-seven counties was that every single one of them was gerrymandered. The lines were drawn in such a way that Hispanics couldn’t win, no matter how much they registered, no matter how much they voted. When people were saying their vote didn’t count, they were telling the truth. The system had been set up to insure that their vote didn’t count.
BOND: What about other barriers? We heard Ms. Shackelford talk about the poll tax. What about other exclusionary barriers?
HERNANDEZ: We faced the annual registration for the poll tax. But another barrier unique to Hispanics was learning English. A large number of our older citizens weren’t afforded the opportunity to learn English. When they were growing up and when they were working they knew as much English as they needed to know to pick up people’s clothes, to clean their houses and take care of their children, and to cut their yards.
They didn’t figure they needed any more English than that. So having the ballot printed in English only denied people their citizenship. People who had sent their children to war, had paid their taxes all these years, and been faithful to American ideals but who had never been given a chance to learn English. When-under the Voting Rights Act-bilingual ballots were printed, our participation increased.
We also started attacking by litigating. We had filed lawsuits and were victorious in voting rights cases. When our people started winning at a local level and they started seeing change our participation went up.
In the Southwest the number of Hispanic elected officials increased from 1,500 in 1976 to close to 4,000 today. In Texas, one of the Southern states that we are talking about, we went from about 700 elected officials in 1974 to 1,600 today. We’ve doubled the number of voters, we’ve doubled the number of elected officials. I think that in Texas and in Florida you’re not going to win statewide elections unless you capture a significant part of the Hispanic vote.
BOND: And what has it meant to the general public in the states where you work to enfranchise this large segment of the population that formerly was just shut out; what difference does it make? If I were a devil’s advocate here: who cares? What difference does it make if Hispanics vote, if their lines are drawn properly?
HERNANDEZ: Well, in a democracy, anytime you have a large portion of the population shut off and alienated from the political system, that population, pretty soon, is going to try to bring down that system. They have no part in it, no share in it. Democratic institutions are fed and nurtured by people’s participation.
But there’s another issue that has to do with the fact that Hispanics bring energy, skills, and wisdom to this country. The other side of it, let’s say we don’t do anything. Let’s say we don’t integrate people, we don’t give them an opportunity. In Texas, by the year 2025, blacks and Hispanics will make up a majority of the population.
Are you going to have a majority of the population shut out economically, politically, and culturally from the life of that state?
HARRISON: In Alabama, the relegation of blacks to a second-class citizenship economically has denied growth to that state. If you look at the gaps between white income, black income, and Hispanic income across the region and the nation, you see lost economic opportunity. You can’t buy a house, you can’t feed your children, you can’t buy health care, you can’t clothe your family. That has relegated this society to a slower growth. We have a third-world nation living in the midst of the wealth of America. Racism continues to be the determinant of not only political but economic decisions. Racism is just a hell of a thing.
HERNANDEZ: I think the first stage in a people’s development is always the acquisition of power. The second stage is the exercise of power. I think we’ve gotten pretty
good at moving into the acquisition of political power. But we’re still learning our way on how we as minorities exercise that power.
BOND: 1990 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Selma march and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. What does tomorrow hold? We see David Dinkins in New York, Douglas Wilder in Virginia–are these aberrations? Are we going to see more dark faces in unfamiliar places? What’s going to happen next?
HERNANDEZ: There’s no question that we will see more blacks being elected and we’ll see Hispanics being governors within this decade, and perhaps some black and Hispanic senators.
I think that the challenge for the ’90s is to exercise the power. For a long time our politics was protest politics, meaning you try to stop that thing from happening to you. It’s a redress of grievance, Well, that’s the politics that you’re involved in when you’re not on the inside. And we still need to do that.
But there’s another politics that’s emerging within the Hispanic community. In Texas we say, “dance with the one that brought you.” And what brought us was voter registration. What brought us were the Voting Rights Act lawsuits, and we have to be vigilant about that. What bought us was the commitment of black and Hispanic leaders and families and parents to do something better for their community and their children. We can’t leave that behind.
At the same time, we need to make sure that we start paying attention to the time when we will be the majority. By 2010, 30 percent of all the children in America will be minority children. In the five largest states in this country, minority children will be the new majority. That’s within our lifetime. When my boy is my age, he could be living in a state in which a majority of the people there are Hispanic. We need to prepare ourselves for being the majority and that means proposing from public policy perspective things that make our society more opportunity-filled, freer and more just.
The whole process is still very much alive and well in the black communities. The realities of our politics in northern cities is often still based upon that kind of participation. In 1991 after the census is taken and the new line-drawing process begins, we will come to the table with knowledge about what reapportionment is. We know how to try to make it work for us. I think we’re going to see an expansion of black, Hispanic and other minority participation during the 1990s and the redrawing process that will follow the 1990 census will lay foundations for that expansion.
BOND: Ms. Shackelford, let me shift gears a little bit and come to you. Your biography says you are the first woman mayor of Little Rock. We hear now about a woman’s vote. We see women’s preferences influencing decisions in the New York City mayoral race and the Virginia governor’s race. What does this mean?
SHACKELFORD: I think that in the beginning days of the women’s movement when we were fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, it still wasn’t clearly defined. It was almost pitting one against the other. Say me as a black woman, whether I’m a woman or a black in the sense of how I related to issues. There is no “if, and, or but” about it. The abortion issue is a woman’s issue. And, for the first time now, I think you can see the impact of the woman’s vote, black or white, rich or poor, in the sense of how they are impacting upon elections. And I think the past elections in Virginia and in new York show that.
BOND: You can argue that black women have been much more successful, proportionately anyway than white women. There were at one time, in proportionate number, more black women in the Congress than there were white women. There are a number of black women who have had electoral successes on the lower level. What’s going to happen in black politics in the United States, what new faces are we going to see? Neither Douglas Wilder nor Dave Dinkins is a babe in arms. These are men who have been around in political office for years and years. What new faces, fresh faces,
female faces are we going to see in the future?
SHACKELFORD: We have not had a black woman governor. We have not had a black woman mayor of a truly major city. We have not had a black woman senator. We have very, very few black women who have found entry into corporate policymaking. You give me an economic chart and black women are still on the bottom; a political chart, we’re still on the bottom.
But, in the sense of new faces on the horizon, I see many more women now because they have had the opportunity or have been forced to be a part of the economic mainstream. Really working to take care of families themselves. Exposed-which means they are more concerned about politics because they understand the relevance of politics and economic well-being. We’re going to see more educated women who will not just focus on careers, but will focus on politics.
BOND: Mr. Hernandez, earlier we were talking about generations in politics. How is the first generation of Hispanics elected in Texas and the first generation of blacks elected in Alabama and Arkansas different from those elected in the last five to ten years?
HERNANDEZ: I think you’ll find two major differences. The first generation of leadership tends to be elected out of communities where the districts or jurisdictions are predominantly black or Hispanic. And as such, they come out of a struggle of protest. The second generation of Ieadership has less of that struggle of protest because the political process has been more accessible to them. But they’re tending to win now in districts where they make up 20 to 30 percent of the population. For example, the mayor’s race in Denver is won in a city where only 13 percent of the population is Hispanic. We see that happening much more. That means that their politics are not going to be as ethnically driven.
The more that women are integrated, the more that Hispanics and blacks are integrated into the national body politic, the more they’re going to be talking about justice, opportunity, and freedom. I think you’re going to see a renaissance in those values coming from segments that have been left out and now are being brought in. Because they are close enough to their history to remember a time when they were excluded, they will be more faithful to keeping the promise for all the citizens.
Once there were folks who said that you shouldn’t give people who don’t own property the right to vote. There were others who said you shouldn’t have freed the slaves, or given women the right to vote. There were folks who said you shouldn’t pay attention to those rabble-rousers in the South in the 1960s who made the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation come true. I think that future generations will look back at this generation that’s in the vanguard of transforming American life and say that this generation stood for what was best in America. And, those that resisted, stood on the wrong side of history.
BOND: Tony Harrison, we see in the headlines all kinds of racial and ethnic conflict, gay bashing, attacks on Asians, attacks on Hispanics, incidents such as Bensonhurst in New York. What does this say to us, twenty-five years after the Civil Rights Movement began?
HARRISON: It says that we are going through some frustrating times. I think Andy touched it when he said that you are sort of at the castle door. I think that there’s a lot of resentment, frustration, and lack of understanding in the white community that is festering.
The fact is that the economy is not generating enough opportunities for America’s people. White folks feel that blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are getting what’s theirs. The fact is that the economy isn’t generating jobs enough for all of us. And white folks are resenting what they see.
I don’t think it speaks negatively to where we are coming from, I think it speaks more to white frustrations. In this context, just the other day I was watching a television piece on eastern Europe. A Solidarity leader was attending a big rally in Chicago. The highest population of Polish people outside of Poland in one city is Chicago. I hope the Poles in Chicago will understand my struggle. Their struggle and my struggle is basically the same. Racism impedes their ability to see that.
Those kids in Bensonhurst were almost first generation Italian emigrants.
Why did they come to America? Freedom, economic opportunity? The same things I want. Racial tensions remain because the society has so segregated us that we have not learned enough about each other or appreciated our respective histories and those are the tensions that we
I’m hopeful that with the new participation of blacks, Hispanics and Asians we can make this society as vibrant and vital and energetic as it ought to be and can be. We have to continue to pursue the political acquisition of participation and of power. We have to make the schools responsive to educate our children and help them understand that if they are not ready for participation in that society that’s coming in ten years they’re going to be cast aside.
The drug wars in the inner-cities of today are, I think, a direct by-product of the absence of hope and the absence of a sense of the future that these kids are faced with- overbearing pressure built upon generations of exclusion and denial. As long as our children cannot see past the moment that is in front of them, they can’t plan for tomorrow. When they can’t plan for tomorrow, there is no hope.
I think that racism is going to impede this society’s acceptance of the changing reality that Andy described. We’ve got every nation here in America. You can find somebody from every place in the world right here. And those Americans can in fact provide linkages back to South America, back to Spain, back to Europe, back to Africa. And all of the Asian countries are represented here.
But I don’t think we really understand the wealth of human diversity that we have in this nation, because we have been so historically tied into restricting access and restricting participation.