Askia MuhammadColumnists

MUHAMMAD: Measuring the Impact — The Ballot or the Bullet

No matter what the outcome of the tumultuous 2020 presidential election, one milestone in Black politics will be surpassed: the ballot will prevail over the bullet, but to what effect?

In 1964 Brother Malcolm X delivered a provocative speech in Detroit at the invitation of Brother Imari Obadele, titled “The Ballot or the Bullet.” It came at a time when Black “revolutionary” rhetoric was heating up in the face of vicious, armed white opposition to the civil rights movement, both from the paramilitary Ku Klux Klan, along with repressive police brutality, enforcing the racist Jim Crow legal system.

Clearly there was little “justice” for Black folks in those days. Then, as now, “law and order” was coded language that meant enforcement was directed at “just us.”

Years later, Brother Imari, an attorney, went on co-found the Republic of New Africa (RNA), a separatist movement which called for Black sovereignty over seven southern states in the South, which then held a majority of the U.S. Black population.

The challenge in Brother Malcolm’s speech, when there were only about a half-dozen Black members of Congress, was that if the Black vote was realized, especially in those Southern states where white Congress members held power because their seniority was guaranteed by the segregated electoral system, if the power of the Black vote was realized and 10 percent of the Congress (roughly the percentage of the Black population) was held by Black representatives, especially in the South, it would break the back of the warmongering political system that could always fund “guns,” but never fund “butter.”

This year there are a record 125 Black candidates for federal offices, according to research by statistician David Bositis. The previous record, 91, was in 2018. Among those, there are a record 94 Black Democratic nominees for federal office — 89 in the House and five in the Senate.

All 50 Black incumbents, he writes (47 representatives, two delegates and one senator) are safe for reelection. Of the Black non-incumbent candidates, Ritchie Torres, Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones, all running for seats in the state of New York, are likely to win. And, in Missouri, Cori Bush defeated incumbent Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary in a safe Democratic district, which means that the 51-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) will grow even larger this year.

Of the two Black Democratic senators in the CBC, Cory Booker (D-N.J.) will likely be reelected, and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is running for vice president. The one Black Republican senator — Tim Scott of South Carolina — is also not on the ballot this year. He has never been a CBC member.

There are also a record five Black Democratic Senate candidates—a couple of whom have a “puncher’s chance” to knock out entrenched white Republican incumbents: former Agriculture Secretary and former House Member Mike Espy in Mississippi, and Jaime Harrison, the former Democratic state party chair in South Carolina, running against the reviled Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham.

The one surviving Black GOP House member — Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), another non-CBC member — is not seeking reelection. He and Rep. Nia Love (R-Utah) were elected in 2014, but Love, though she paid obeisance to President Donald Trump, was turned out of office after only one term, by a Trump-loving white Republican.

But as impressive as their numbers may be, the CBC in this time in the 21st century does not have the clout it deserves. While several of its members have important positions — committee chairs, in the Democratic Caucus leadership — they lack the unity that even the Tea Party and other right-wing caucuses have, thus, they look good on paper, but will not take a united, “ride or die” stance in behalf of black interests.

CBC members just don’t wield the influence on behalf of Black folks that Brother Malcolm envisioned when he delivered the epic “Ballot or the Bullet” speech in 1964.

I think it also has to do with the realization which former Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) told this writer that she came to after serving several terms in Congress. She said when she was elected, she thought she would be near the top of the political food chain, able to really wield power and get things done. What she found out was that being in Congress was really nothing more than “middle management.”

Which leads me to conclude that Brother Malcolm’s momentous declaration about The Ballot or The Bullet is not all it was cracked up to be. Yes, the ballot is an important tool. It’s necessary, but not sufficient to solve the problems confronting Black people in America because the entire system works against us.

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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