August 21, 2020
The DNC and the BLACK Vote:
An Intertwined History
Two women encouraging voting, 1970
The 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC) ended last night as it had begun on a high note on Monday night with presentations from a spectrum of leaders including both Democrats and Republicans. Like 2020, it will go down in history as the first virtual convention. The relationship between the DNC and the black community goes back to 1832 when the first Democratic Party Convention was held in in Baltimore, Maryland on May 21st and 22nd
Depiction of the 1860 DNC, Charleston, South Carolina
It was a time when Democrats dominated the slave-holding South, most of whom were slaveholders who advocated for strong state governments while resisting federal interventions in slavery. At this inaugural DNC, the Democrats proposed the Nullification Doctrine saying the states had a right to nullify federal laws within their own borders. Foreshadowing the Civil War, all of the subsequent conventions until the start of the war largely centered on the same issues of slavery and state versus federal government authority. The convention in 1860 was one of the most tumultuous, almost exclusively focused on slavery. Unable to agree the spread of slavery to the new Western territories, no nominations were made and delegates walked out, with the two groups reconvening separately later. In 1864, a convention was held despite the fact that the Civil War was in its third year. Hosted in Chicago, Illinois, no one was willing to entertain the idea of emancipating enslaved African Americans; and, at the 1868 DNC, slavery and Southern secession were considered “closed matters.”[1]
Poster protesting Louisiana’s corruption in the Democratic primary election, 1876
However, the 1872 and 1876 conventions centered on Reconstruction, with Democrats advocating for its end. The 1876 Democratic National Convention is particularly relevant to today because it was the first time there were large-scale debates about issues of voter suppression and the African American community in a presidential election: “Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden had beaten Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote. Republican leaders challenged the vote results from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina on the grounds that African Americans had been intimidated from going to the polls. Southern Republican election officials from the three states disqualified votes from Democratic precincts, thus providing a victory for Hayes.”[2] This “great fraud” as the Democrats called it, was central to the 1880 DNC, where an agreement was made in which “Democratic Members of Congress agreed to the formation of an election commission that favored the Republicans in return for private assurances that federal troops would be withdrawn from the South,” ushering in the violent era of the Jim Crow South.[3]
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, November 9, 1932
The 1920s saw a “realignment of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party… This process involved a ‘push and pull’: the refusal by Republicans to pursue civil rights alienated many black voters, while efforts—shallow though they were—by northern Democrats to open opportunities for African Americans gave black voters reasons to switch parties.”[4] This increased with the crash of Wall Street and the start of the Great Depression, when Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt implemented progressive New Deal policies in the 1930s. These policies, among other things, provided significant assistance to struggling Americans, many of which were African Americans. Republicans, though, saw it as federal government overreach and overspending when historically they had been advocates for a strong central government.
Protesters challenging racial segregation in the military at the 1948 DNC, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A month after this convention, President Harry Truman integrated the military.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Northern Democrats, led by then Mayor of Minneapolis Hubert Humphrey, pushed for a stronger civil rights agenda while calling for the party to support Harry Truman. But as journalist Francis Ward noted: “In 1948, at the Democratic National Convention there was… a big controversy that, that occurred… where some of the liberal Democrats from the North introduced a very mild civil rights plank into the Democratic Party platform and, of course, at that time, a major part of the Democratic Party were the white segregationist politicians who came from the South; well, the segregationists didn't like this civil rights plank. By today's standards, this civil rights plank would be almost nothing, but back then, it was a big thing. So… a number of the southern delegations to the Democratic Convention walked out.”[5] They would go on to form the States’ Rights Party, known as the Dixiecrats. They elected South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. At the Dixiecrat convention in Birmingham, Alabama, Thurmond proclaimed, “There's not enough troops in the army, to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”[6]
John F. Kennedy accepting the Democratic nomination for president, 1960
From that point on, issues of civil rights had lukewarm reception within the Democratic Party. But that would change in 1960 as noted by former Urban League head John W. Mack (1937 - 2018): “It was something they couldn't duck… if the Democratic Party was going to claim to have any concern about its African American constituency, and if they were going to do more than just give lip service to civil rights… unless the party was going to come off as being completely hypocritical, they had to… at least be receptive.”[7]
MFDP delegation Vice Chairwoman Fannie Lou Hamer and Chairman Aaron Henry speaking before the Credentials Committee in a televised hearing, August 1964.
Controversy then arose in 1964 with the election of Mississippi delegates from the all-white, long standing southern “Dixiecrat Delegation” and separately, delegates from a symbolic election of the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP): “The question was whether their [MFDP’s] delegation, which really was more legitimate than the Dixiecrat Delegation, would be seated or the Dixiecrat Delegation seated and… [Senate Majority Whip (MN)] Hubert Humphrey was head of the [credentials] committee to work out a compromise,” said former Minnesota NAACP head Matthew Little (1921 – 2014).[8] Despite a nationally televised hearing with testimonies from MFDP leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Willie McCray (1942 - 2006), former staff member of SNCC, reported that the Credentials Committee “only would offer us two seats… and we wouldn't accept it. We didn't spend all that time in the hot summer sun down in Mississippi trying to get these folks registered to a straw convention, and a lot of time and energy, and we get all the way up to Atlantic City, and the same people that was encouraging us to take it on were the ones that turned their backs on us now.”[9] Former SNCC project director Dorie Ladner saw this as a turning point, observing that the next four years [after 1964 DNC]… blacks began to participate in the political process.”[10]
Police move on protesters during the 1968 DNC, Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois.
By 1968, following the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., anti-Vietnam War protests dominated the DNC. Former Chicago police officer Howard Saffold: “This was the first time I ever saw--and I think a lot of white America for the first time saw how brutal the police could be towards white kids. I mean these young, white college students with long hair and sandals and stuff like that, who were demonstrating against the [Vietnam] War, didn't have any idea what was going to happen to them after the sun went down during that Democratic Convention… These kids had set up camp. I mean they weren't bother--it was a public park… They were going to spend the night.”[11]
Richard Nixon campaigning in Georgia where a sign proclaims “Dixieland is Nixonland,” 1968.
In the midst of these demonstrations, the Republican Party’s Richard Nixon worked to attract Dixieland as part of the Southern Strategy. U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (1919 – 2015), the first African American to be elected senator by popular vote, the first to be seated since Reconstruction, and the first to be re-elected, said: “I had split with him on Southern strategy, and I accused him publicly of using the Southern strategy when he promised me he was not going to do it, but he turned around and did it… but it was getting Southern voters to vote Republican, and it was successful.”[12] This strategy, he added, “was abhorrent to me… I strongly feel that we should have integration and not separation of the races. And… [to] perpetuate that… that's what they did with the Southern strategy… Nixon, for political reasons, and I guess expediency, enveloped, if he didn't start it, he certainly embraced it, the Southern strategy which I think set the country back for generations in race relations.”[13]
California State Assemblywoman Yvonne Braithwaite Burke speaking at the 1972 DNC, Miami, Florida.
The 1972 DNC, though, saw reforms proposed by the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection that increased participation of women, youth, and minorities. Here, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke served as the first African American and first minority woman vice-chair. Willie L. Brown, then a California state assemblyman, explained that “by the time 1972 came around… we began to really have an influence on how delegates were to be selected. We knew that the old system would never allow for people without resources, et cetera, and all we had were votes, so we began to say you got to select a delegation based upon how many votes you produce… by the time we go to Florida… for that [Democratic National] convention in 1972, we got there with the delegation from California being dominated by Latinos, outside Democrats like Burton, and African Americans. And the three co-chairs of that delegation on that occasion was Dolores Huerta, John Burton and Willie Brown… and it was the most diverse delegation that anybody had ever had seen when we got to Florida.”[14] For television producer Linda Torrence, she was “the first African American woman to represent the State of Arkansas… at the time that I got involved, I was the only African American person that was an officer of the young Democrats club… that was also the first year that the Democratic Party decided that it would change its rules to include people under thirty, blacks, and people, and women, so I fit all three categories. I was under thirty, I was African American, and I happened to be a female. And so, that's exactly what they were looking for in terms of getting more into the democratic process.”[15]
U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan (TX), the first African American woman to deliver the keynote address at the DNC, Madison Square Garden, 1976
National Association of Black Journalists co-founder and journalist Paul Brock recalled the 1976 DNC at New York’s Madison Square Garden as having “the largest number of African American delegates in the history of the Democratic Party just as it was going to be the largest number of women delegates in the history of the Democratic Party.”[16] At the same time, the Democratic Party took a stance of being “noncontroversial,” with “wide-raging Democratic goals, as opposed to specific legislative initiatives and hard-line stands on issues.”[17] The subsequent decades saw steady increases in African American political participation, and a majority of Republican candidates being elected president with the exception of President Bill Clinton and the first African American president, Barack Obama.
First Lady Michelle Obama giving the DNC keynote address, August 18, 2020.
This past Monday former First Lady Michelle Obama captivated our attention with her stark and emotional rebuke of the Trump administration: “Here at home, as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and a never-ending list of innocent people of color continue to be murdered, stating the simple fact that a Black life matters is still met with derision from the nation's highest office… They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn't matter what happens to everyone else… They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists… I understand that my message won't be heard by some people. We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention.” In the face of this, though, she pointed out that “when the horrors of systemic racism shook our country and our consciences, millions of Americans of every age, every background rose up to march for each other, crying out for justice and progress.[18]
She also reminded us of the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis's warning: "When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.’”[19] The DNC and its relationship with the African American community will continue to be written over the days and years to come, including the potential of winning the presidency and the election of the first African American/South Asian American U.S. Vice President.  
[1] “Democratic National Political Conventions 1832-2008,” Library of Congress, accessed August 19, 2020.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Party Realignment And The New Deal,” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, accessed August 20, 2020.
[5] Francis Ward (The HistoryMakers A2004.166), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 17, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 12, Francis Ward remembers learning about politics at the 1948 Democratic National Convention.
[6] John Hockenberry. “The Racist Filibuster We Can't Afford to Forget,” New York Public Radio, August 29, 2016, accessed August 20, 2020.
[7] John W. Mack (The HistoryMakers A2007.139), session 1, tape 5, story 8.
[8] Matthew Little (The HistoryMakers A2002.145), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 11, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, Matthew Little describes Hubert Humphrey's betrayal of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
[9] Willie McCray (The HistoryMakers A2006.051), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 24, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Willie McCray recalls the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.
[10] Dorie Ladner (The HistoryMakers A2008.079), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 24, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 8, Dorie Ladner describes the aftermath of the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
[11] Howard Saffold (The HistoryMakers A2002.091), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 5, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Howard Saffold details the police brutality during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
[12] The Honorable Edward Brooke (The HistoryMakers A2003.233), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9, story 3, Edward Brooke details his stature and influence in the Republican Party.
[13] The Honorable Edward Brooke (The HistoryMakers A2003.233), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9, story 4, Edward Brooke reveals his abhorrence for the Republican Southern Strategy.
[14] The Honorable Willie L. Brown (The HistoryMakers A2015.008), interviewed by Belva Davis, December 14, 2015, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, The Honorable Willie L. Brown talks about the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
[15] Linda Torrence (The HistoryMakers A2006.027), interviewed by Evelyn Pounds, February 18, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Linda Torrence describes her involvement in the 1972 Democratic Convention.
[16] Paul Brock (The HistoryMakers A2003.106), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 8, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 7, Paul Brock describes Hamilton Jordan's strategy for convincing Democratic delegates to select Jimmy Carter as the Democratic nominee in 1976.
[17] “Democratic National Political Conventions 1832-2008,” Library of Congress, accessed August 19, 2020.
[18] Michelle Obama, “Democratic National Convention,” (speech, Democratic National Convention, August 18, 2020).
[19] Ibid.
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