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Blacks and Politics: Steady Gain In a Decade of Disappointment
By Roger Wilkins

Ten years after the Kerner commission issued its report, forecasting the development of "two societies, one black, one white— separate and unequal," there is much disappointment and some disillusionment in America's black community. But the picture is not entirely bleak.

Urban Affairs

There has been quiet, steady progress, not only in areas in which new institutions have been established to assist in the quest for social justice, but also in areas in which changes unimagined two decades ago have dramatically altered the face of American society.

Nowhere is such change more evident than in the political arena. The conventional wisdom among people who have worked on the domestic side of the Federal Government or around the country in race relations is that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been the most successful social legislation to come out of Congress in the last 20 years.

There is no question that the progress has been real. One startling example has been the recent courtship of black voters by Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi who has spent much of his political life and his considerable power fighting such legislation as the Voting Rights Act. Yet he is being seen now campaigning side by side—and sometimes arm in arm—with Aaron Henry, longtime president of the N.A.A.C.P.'s State Conference of Branches in Mississippi.

Mr. Henry, to the dismay of a number of black spokesmen who have denounced this political alliance, has issued a plea to his friends to give Senate Eastland ac hance. The Senator, for his part, seems to welcome an alliance that would have been unimaginable just five years ago and that signals the power of the 400,000 black voterso n the Mississippi rolls.

Facts and Figures

There are other signs of significant change. The Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies, which will soon celebrate ad ecade of black political progress, has assembled an impressive array of statistics indicating that there is reason to celebrate. A statement recently issued by thec enter notes:

"Facts and figures help to tell the story: eight black Congresspersons in 1968, 16 in 1978; one blacke lected state executive in 1968, four today, including two lieutenant governors. Within 10 years the number of black state senators increased 81p ercent, and the number of black state representatives, 74 percent. The number of municipal black officials has tripled in the past 10 years, currently totaling 2,083. In 1970, there wereo nly 48 black mayors in the United States; today there are 163, including the mayors of Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Newark and, as of May, New Orleans."

The center cites progress at other levels of government as well. Fore xample, the number of black elected officials in Illinois increased from 26 to 134 in that decade. There are now 13 black state legislators in Alabama, where in 1970 there were none, and the number of blacks in county governing bodies in Arkansas increased from none to 29 and in Louisiana from five to 60.

There are few blacks in the country who would dispute the importance of those figures, but the center and elected officials hasten top ut them into context.

They point to the continuing social malady that finds 28 percent of all blacks still living in poverty and 40 percent of black children currently being raised in poverty. And they note that, despite the political progress, less than 1 percent of all elected officials in the United States are black, and in 1976, out of 15 million eligible black voters, only six million voted.

Center organized in 1970

In that context the Joint Center for Political Studies, an institution that did not exist a decade ago, has come to be viewed as a great asset in the struggle for political participation by minorities. The center was organized in 1970 with a grant from the Ford Foundation and a good deal of technical assistance from the Metropolitan Applied Research Center.

The foundation has continued its assistance to the center, reflecting its "concern about the role of minorities in governmental life," according to Sanford M. Jaffe, one of Ford's program directors. 

The purposes of the organization, according to the Ford grant document, are to "provide research, information, education and technical assistance in order to increase the understanding, participation and effectiveness of blacks and other minority group members in governmental activities." And the document adds, "Its services are provided on a nonpartisan basis."

A little over a decade ago Justice Department officials cast about desperately to find technical assistance for the first black elected sheriff in Alabama. Little was available. 

Regional Seminars Held

Now, according to Eddie N. Williams, president of the center, the organization provides training to public officials through a number of regional seminars held several times a year in such areas as management, planning, budgeting and administration.

"We do a lot of research on governance problems," Mr. Williams said in a recent interview. "We have looked at long-range planning and metropolitan government as well as at revenue-sharing and drug abuse issues."

The center also played a key role in pulling together Operation Big Vote, a drive by a coalition of organizations that raised minority registration by 12 percent in 36 target cities in 1976.

"We've made a lot of progress in this decade," Mr. Williams said, "but we've got a long way to go. And politics really is the alternative to a lot rhetoric or to hitting the streets again."


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