When asked about the state of black political empowerment, David Lowery didn’t hide his true feelings.
“We fell asleep at the wheel,” he said.
Lowery, president of Chicago’s south suburban branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wasn’t happy with the low turnout of black voters in last month’s mayoral election. A reason for the low turnout, Lowery said, was because City Council’s black caucus didn’t pick a candidate the black community agreed on. Carol Moseley Braun, a former U.S. senator, garnered the most support from the black caucus and won only 9 percent of the popular vote. The winner, Rahm Emanuel, took 55 percent of the popular vote. Part of the reason for the disparity, according to Lowery, was that Emanuel appealed to more young black people than Moseley Braun.
Lowery spoke often of African-American youth, and a certain faction concerns him: the black youth that choose not to vote. Lowery said they are the key to black political empowerment.
“If you gathered all the gang bangers together and got them to vote, we could vote anyone into office,” Lowery said. “They are the sleeping giant.”
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington, who was also former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s press secretary, agreed.
“Those folks have never been engaged. Groups like the NAACP and Rainbow PUSH need to not just re-energize kids, but put them in leadership positions,” Washington said.
Rainbow PUSH Coalition is a national religious and social development organization led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the group’s 40th annual conference will be held in Chicago this June.
The NAACP is doing their part to get Chicago’s African American youth involved in the political process, according to Rose Joshua.
Joshua, president of Chicago’s Southside NAACP branch, said the organization is working with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to start youth councils. She said the youth councils would involve civic engagement, like the girl scouts or boy scouts.
Robert Starks, a political science professor at Northeastern Illinois University and chairman of the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment, said it is extremely important for leaders like Joshua to keep young African-Americans politically engaged.
Starks said the younger generation could then continue their political involvement in college, like the black students he teaches.
“They’re involved in almost every campaign that comes along,” he said.
While engaging black youths is important for the survival of black political empowerment, black leaders have to stay engaged as well, according to Lowery. He said black politicians around the country—Moseley Braun included—aren’t visible in the black community.
“They only care when elections come around,” Lowery said. “These guys need to get out of their cars and talk to people in the neighborhoods.”
One black businessman pointed to the past to show an example of how a black leader should act. Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C., said there are no strong leaders like former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. According to Alford, Washington was able to unite different camps within the black community.
Now there’s a lull in leadership, and Alford said a lull leads to disorganization. He said to get black communities politically organized, a new kind of leader must emerge.
“Entrepreneurs will be the next black leaders,” Alford said. “We need people who can manage risk, who know economics, who know how to make a payroll.”
Alford also said entrepreneurial black leaders will keep blacks in the loop economically. He mentioned former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who gave Black Entertainment Television a district cable contract in the 1980s.
“Barry, Willie Brown in San Francisco, David Dinkins in New York, they made hundreds of black people millionaires,” Alford said.
But Washington cautioned not to compare emerging black leaders to past leaders like Harold Washington. She said charismatic leaders like Washington and President Obama come around once a generation and a repeat shouldn’t be expected.
Washington said talented and trustworthy leaders are enough to keep black political empowerment alive.
Lowery agreed and said the color of a good leader doesn’t matter, either.
“We want leaders who are fair and equitable,” he said.
One black politician who’s been re-elected six times agreed with Lowery.
“I don’t run as a black candidate,” said Rep. Karen Yarbrough (7th). “Electors are smarter than that. I want people to see me as a good leader, not the color of my skin.”
Above all else, Lowery said one thing is needed to keep black political empowerment alive.
“In the 50s and 60s we didn’t have the numbers,” Lowery said. “But we had unity.”