Black leaders map strategy, plan agenda for 1988 elections. Seeking more leverage with the policymakers of both major parties
Black Americans are growing restless as they look toward next year with its presidential election and local congressional and senatorial contests. Unlike 1984, when blacks followed the candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Democratic Party primaries and voted against President Reagan in November, blacks are aligning themselves with virtually every presidential hopeful this year, including Republicans.
Most are expected to vote Democratic and to support Mr. Jackson in the primaries, yet they also are seeking policy leverage with both parties. They plan to support senators whose voting records they deem favorable and to work to elect more black and minority congressmen.
The Joint Center for Political Studies, America's best-known black political think tank, will set the stage for what it hopes will be breakthroughs in both major parties at its fifth National Policy Institute next January in Washington.
``Achieving black political power is the goal,'' says institute director Russell Owens. ``We can't sit back and react. ... We hope to provide a setting for leaders to declare a black agenda for 1988 presidential hopefuls.''
An example of growing black political clout can be noted in the pending Senate vote on the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Six Southern Democratic senators elected in 1986, who normally could be expected to favor Judge Bork, owe part of their success to black voters. Three of them - Richard Shelby of Alabama, Wyche Fowler of Georgia, and Terry Sanford of North Carolina - unseated conservative Republicans with overwhelming black support. A fourth, John Breaux of Louisiana, won the seat of retiring Sen. Russell Long with black support. And incumbents Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina count on black votes.
Black interests have been secondary issues to most candidates, although presidential hopefuls include black advisers on their staffs, Mr. Owens says. ``On the other hand,'' he adds, ``many people feel that black public officials are harassed when they appear to have some clout.''
Alleged harassment of black officials and organizers of register-and-vote campaigns among minorities was discussed during the Congressional Black Caucus Weekend last month in Washington. Two legal cases pinpoint this concern:
Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., has charged that the Justice Department is placing undo pressure on his office by conducting an ongoing investigation of City Hall but making no criminal charges. He has appealed the dismissal of his complaint.
In Alabama black workers in register-and-vote campaigns were accused of voter fraud in 1982, '84, and '86. They say Republicans are spot-checking black areas but are not hitting white communities. This case seems to have been resolved by the two political parties.
Supporters of Mr. Jackson are very concerned that he may suffer a backlash as a result of his conflict with Jews in 1984 because of remarks he is alleged to have made and because of the backing he received from Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.
Jackson may also face organized opposition from some blacks. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, suggested in August that blacks not place all their presidential eggs in the Jackson basket.
These political question marks make it imperative that black political leaders set priorities at the National Policy Institute, Owens says. ``Each of the nation's black elected and appointed public officials will be invited to participate,'' he says. ``So will all the presidential hopefuls. With an updated agenda we expect to challenge not only presidential aspirants, but candidates at every level ... to include our goals in their platforms.''
The institute will seek to do what the nation's biggest black political gathering, the National Black Political Convention, attempted 15 years ago in Gary, Ind. At that time more than 15,000 black leaders met to set a national agenda, and possibly support a black candidate for president.
But from its opening day, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People withdrew, the convention was stifled by dissent. Delegates could not agree on a black presidential candidate. Shirley Chisholm, then a US representative from Brooklyn, declared herself a candidate. She failed to get the mass black support that Jackson received in 1984.
Nevertheless, the convention produced a statement of black priorities and achieved national attention. It met in 1976 in Little Rock, Ark., but by 1984 it had been reduced to running local candidates in scattered communities.