Politics the Beloved Commune: Arkansas has the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other Southern states
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 12, No. 3, 1990, pp. 13-16
THE YEAR 1990 may be remembered as a profound moment for Arkansas politics. This is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, perhaps the most powerful instrument in the twentieth century for fairness in the U.S. political process. And it is this year that the voting rights movement, already spread across most of the Southern states, has finally come home to Arkansas.
Since January, the Voting Rights Act has fostered dramatic changes, as the federal courts have required the redistricting of the Arkansas Legislature so black voters would have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in at least ten legislative districts. Another federal court order may create new districts from which Arkansas state court judges will be elected more fairly and more substantially with the votes of black citizens. In all likelihood, this federal court will enforce the Voting Rights Act and create as many as fifteen judicial districts where black voters can elect the candidates of their choice.
These two court cases represent sweeping changes. Yet, they are only the beginning of a long journey in Arkansas from the politics of mere participation to the politics of inclusion. The empowerment of black voters though the creation of effective majority black districts has only begun. Almost every week the federal court dockets in Arkansas show more lawsuits against school boards, city councils, or county governments with election schemes that dilute black votes. No less dramatic will be the redistricting of the state’s local governments after the new Census data is available in 1991-1992. Recent projections by the Southern Regional Council suggest that as many as eighty new majority-black districts may be created through redistricting of the county governments in Arkansas in the 1990s.
All told, in this new decade, the number of officials elected by a majority of black voters could triple. Most of that growth will take place in the Arkansas Delta. So long as the Voting Rights Act is the law of the land, as it now stands, and so long as lawyers can find a federal courthouse, this trend is as certain and mighty as the southward flow of the Mississippi.
Arkansas will probably have the largest percentage of growth in the number of black elected officials of all Southern states during the 1990s. Of course, Arkansas will lead this category mostly because so much of this kind of change has already happened in other Southern states and so little in Arkansas. Making up for lost time, the decade of the 1990s may be the decade of unprecedented black political empowerment in Arkansas.
These changes, however, will not be easy and will not necessarily deliver Arkansas to the political promised land. These changes will not necessarily bring the politics of Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.”
But Arkansas can profit from the experiences of ocher Southern states over the last two decades. Both black and white Arkansans can learn from the trials and achievements of other Southern states in this process of change. Having come upon this historical moment later than most of the region, Arkansas has an opportunity to make more of the change than have some ocher Southern states.
As paradoxical as it may seem, as difficult as it may be, the political change now under way in Arkansas for the benefit of black voters will unite the white community more than it will unite the black community–at least in the short run. With the approaching political opportunities for black leaders will come painful divisions within the black community.
Make no mistake about it. Most of the white community and most of the white leadership in Arkansas will be united in opposition to this political change until the very last city council is redistricted and the very last vote in new redistricting plans is counted. Regrettably, opposition to change will become an article of faith in many parts of the white community, such as the Delta. Even white leaders who have been helpful to black communities in the past will oppose this political change in silence or with great clamor.
At the same time the transformation of politics will begin to divide parts of the black community and much of the black leadership. This is a rather natural consequence of the political process. With increased opportunities for political office will come increased competition among black office seekers. Some blacks will become candidates because they believe they are the best representatives of their communities. Some will become candidates because
the local white leadership thinks that they will be the best representatives of the black community.
In addition, black voters will probably be more reluctant to vote for black candidates than many black leaders expect. In many places, black voters will continue to feel themselves too vulnerable to white incumbents and white leadership to break old patterns of voting. Lest anyone forget, in the excitement of the moment, a century of white control of thought and deed does not end with one redistricting plan.
Also, some black voters will be underestimated by black office seekers. While they are probably the least educated voting group in the South, black voters are also probably the most sophisticated voters of our region. Unlike their white counterparts in many sections of our region, black voters often have an ability to look beyond race. As a rule, they do not support black candidates only because they are black. Where a white incumbent is, in fact, bringing home
the bacon, black voters will often continue their support.
Another challenge to Arkansas’s black political leadership may be even more ominous. Black political leaders and activists, especially in places like the Delta, should expect to be put under the microscope. In state after state in the South, the new politics has been accompanied by attempts by white officials to identify the weaknesses and the vulnerabilities of black leaders. At times these efforts have been aimed to eliminate black empowerment and entitlements to vote by eliminating black leadership from public office.
Recent Southern political history exhibits numerous black elected officials and unelected activists who have become entangled in a string of state and federal audits, local criminal investigations, civil litigation, and federal investigations and indictments on issues such as voting fraud, taxes, and malfeasance in office. Many of these inquiries have been groundless, and some have been
almost conspiratorial. Federal indictments against voting activists in the Alabama Black Belt in the mid-1980s are a good example. Of course, some investigations have been on target, and black jurors have helped convict some black officials.
In some instances, this scrutiny may represent a double standard, but it is a standard that has to be lived with. Even where the investigation of a black leader or activist was racially motivated, the chances are that the accused will be convicted if he or she has violated the law. In essence, the climate requires that black politicians and activists who seek to take advantage of redistricting opportunities must avoid even the proverbial appearance of impropriety if they are to survive.
Because political power is often intoxicating and campaigns are often all-consuming, some leaders in the early days of this change may forget the real limits of political power. While political transformation, for example, is an essential part of what must change in the lives of poor blacks and whites in the Delta of Arkansas, that change alone will not transform poverty into prosperity. In the beginning days of this change, black candidates will have a tendency to promise too much and find themselves creating higher expectations than they can fulfill. Also, many new candidates may not be prepared to govern when elected. Simply because a candidate can campaign effectively does not always mean that he or she knows how to govern effectively.
Those seeking these new political opportunities will be well advised not to burn their bridges with those who hold economic power, even those whites who will not support any efforts to empower black communities in the politics of inclusion. People change; circumstances change; and in those changes come the possibilities of new definitions of self-interest. Common ground is necessary for the definition of self-interest if economic power and political power can become one force for moving communities out of poverty. In many cases, old opponents will have to become new partners for this union of purpose to take shape.
Another troubling trend also has become evident in the voting rights movement elsewhere in the region. There is a tendency for this movement to become only a lawyers’ battle. Because redistricting is usually required by court order, litigating attorneys have a rightful, pivotal role. But theirs should not be the primary or only role. Arkansas must be careful not to allow the creation of majority black districts by a lawyer’s writ to become a substitute for political activism and efforts to increase voter registration and turnout. If new districts are to become new opportunities for the black community, the community or its political organizations must be on the front lines of the redistricting process.
Finally, the recent Southern experience is a vivid reminder that efforts to empower black voters through the creation of majority black districts are the means, not the end, in the search for the politics of inclusion. For the sake of both black and white Arkansans, no one should be I allowed to forget that coalition politics is the ultimate goal–the politics of inclusion, the politics of the beloved community where the race of candidate or voter is irrelevant and where the needs and concerns of all citizens are paramount. Distinguishing between the means and the end is a political necessity no less than a political virtue. Throughout this process leaders in the black community must remember that controlling ten seats in the state legislature will not allow black voters to pass legislation only through black legislators, that controlling the Helena city council will not provide it with the state resources to improve public education, that controlling the county government of St. Francis County won’t necessarily provide the jobs, training, and opportunities that poor citizens need.
The political changes now underway are necessary to remove the burdens of the political participation from black citizens, to move the Delta and the state of Arkansas from merely allowing blacks to participate in politics towards allowing blacks and whites to become partners in using political power. Redistricting is only the means for arriving et that ultimate good. Therefore, while promoting the creation of majority black districts, African-American leaders in Arkansas must also promote the creation of coalitions that allow black and white candidates to be elected by a majority of white votes as well as black votes.
Already, Arkansas and the South have come a long way in the journey out of segregation. But there’s a long way to go. Wouldn’t it be a rare and cherished gift if the 1990s proved to be the time when the leadership of one Southern state learned from the mistakes and hazards of racial politics elsewhere in the region and gave to its own citizens a political future that includes all? Wouldn’t it be a remarkable legacy if Arkansas–so late in coming to the political empowerment of black citizens–was the first to reveal the promised land of politics, the politics of a beloved community?
Steve Suitts is the executive director of the Southern Regional Council. This article is excerpted from is May 1990 speech to the Arkansas Political Exchange in West Memphis, Ark.