Jackson surges as black leaders grope for key to political unity
Former congresswoman Barbara Jordan says bluntly: ''This year, 1984, could be our leap year to quit the doldrums and push for greater black political power. Be involved in the solution of problems. Form coalitions with other minority and ethnic groups. Then we shall have true black political clout.''
Miss Jordan made the comment some weeks ago, but the message is as fresh as the Rev. Jesse Jackson's impressive showing in this week's New York State primary. He ran almost neck and neck with Gary Hart.
Mr. Jackson's presidential drive this year amounts to a considerably more popular campaign for the White House than, for example, Shirley Chisholm's reach for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.
Today, blacks hold mayoral office in 253 cities, including four of the seven with a population of more than 1 million. And the ranks of black elected officials are up 8.6 percent - from 5,160 in July 1982 to 5,606 a year later - the largest increase since 1976.
Leaders again talk of the need for a coordinating body - perhaps a national black political party - to corral this force to help move more blacks into elected office.
Miss Jordan does not call for a black party, but she outlines a special role for elected officials:
''A black becomes an instant leader when he or she is elected to political office. No longer can a black official be content to revel in glory as an instant celebrity, as the only black, as the first black.''
It's 12 years and three presidential bids since the Chisholm campaign and top black leaders are still divided on how best to move minority candidates into political office.
Back then, blacks were mayors of three Northern cities - Gary, Ind.; Cleveland; and Newark, N.J. More than 10,000 black people - politicians, civil rights leaders, and militants - met in Gary, Ind., at the first National Black Political Convention. The convention's aim was to ride on the coattails of the three ''big time'' mayors and the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus and to unite them with civil rights and social leaders to create a broad base for black power at the polling place.
The outcome? Delegates declined to endorse Mrs. Chisholm for president. They rejected the idea of a black political party. Eventually, the Black Political Convention became the National Black Political Party, which has run no candidates and has a following of a few thousand.
The potential for black politics today - fired by the Jesse Jackson phenomenon - dominated discussions at a recent Washington gathering of many of the country's most-powerful black officials. The Washington gathering was organized by the Joint Center for Political Studies.
But recycling the prospect for a black political party or, for that matter, even rallying behind a black presidential aspirant like Mr. Jackson, prompts no groundswell of black support. Jackson's continued success may, of course, lessen some of this hesitation.
Well before the New York primary voting, Chicago's Mayor Harold Washington waffled on supporting Jackson, backing Gary Hart at one time and plugging Jackson at another. Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta leans toward Walter Mondale. Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode warns against a ''symbolic candidacy'' that removes black people from ''reality.'' But the Pennsylvania primary is now at hand, and voting will be watched for Jackson strength there.
Early primary results indicated that Jackson was struggling for money and delegates to remain in the race until Democratic convention time in July. Jackson has been attracting upward of 55 percent of black votes in the primaries , but his delegate total still places him a distant third in the three-man contest.
Until New York, despite charm and charisma, Jackson had not convinced Democratic Party blacks to vote for him in a solid bloc. And primary results indicate that he attracts fewer than 10 percent of white voters. Although some voices suggest an independent black candidacy, Jackson has repeatedly stated he is ''not interested.'' And this view is supported by other black leaders.
''I'm adamantly opposed to a black third party,'' says Howard Clement III, a city councilor in Durham, N.C. ''Such a party settles nothing. And it creates a black against white struggle. Count me out.''
Jackson's campaign has stirred up black people who have never voted, Mr. Clement says. ''Jesse creates a ripple effect among blacks. He inspires others to register, to vote, and to seek local office.''
But any attempt to organize a black political party faces these roadblocks:
* Top black officials often are committed to political positions or personalities - currently seen in the support of Walter Mondale by black mayors and congressmen - that rule out strictly racial stands. They cannot afford to court openly the idea of a black party separate from both major parties.
* White voters are not likely to pull the lever for a black party ticket.
Nonetheless, a new national organization is on the drawing boards. Elected officials have named an interim body to do three things: map out a program and an agenda for a national meeting in 1986; lay groundwork for a Jewish-black summit; and, finally, to form a task force to tackle the growing crisis for black families, centering on unemployment and teen parenthood.
But the planning will skip the two big political items: developing a black political agenda and calculating the effect of fielding a black candidate for president.