Has the Revolution Been Specified? A Critical Assessment of the Status of Research on the Voting Rights Act and Black Politics

Article excerpt

Below Macon [Georgia] the worm grows darker; for now we approach the Black Belt,--that strange land of shadows, at which even slaves paled in the past, and whence come now only faint and half-intelligible murmurs to the worm beyond. W.E.B. Dubois (1989, 79)

Dubois's comments originally published in 1903 continue to provide an accurate assessment of what little we know about the political economy of the Black Belt since the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) on August 6, 1965. The contemporary need for more intensive and systematic research on these areas is affirmed by a recent controversy in Gadsden County, FL that may prove to be a common example of contemporary Black Belt political life even in the wake of the Voting Rights Revolution. Gadsden County is Florida's sole majority black county (57% Black) and is also the state's poorest county where young black males endured a 70% rate of unemployment at the close of 2004 (Burlew 2005). Thus, given the poor economic conditions, limited opportunities, and the disproportionate economic hardship experienced by the black residents of this community, on December 21, 2004 the county commission voted to remove the county manager of nearly 7 years by a slim margin of 3-2.

At the time of this decision, the membership of the county commission was composed of 4 blacks and 1 white member. The firing sparked charges that race was a factor in the removal of the manager because the manager was white and his removal came in the wake of the recent elections that shifted the composition of the commission from a 3-2 white majority to a 4-1 black majority. The two black incumbents on the commission had been pushing to remove the manager prior to the election but were not successful at persuading their white colleagues to support their position. However, the 2004 elections changed the racial composition of the commission and gave them two new black colleagues and one that supported their position. The "new majority" felt that not enough progress in the area of economic development had been made. As the black chairman of the council stated:

   We [those voting for the removal] were clearly
   trying to focus on economic development. No
   moves were being made. Personnel just did not
   have a sense of urgency ... Ladies and gentlemen,
   folks get treated differently in this county, if you
   didn't know. (Burlew 2005, 2b)

Furthermore, in regards to the economic conditions of the black community and why the council needed to act by removing the manager, the same chairman stated:

   I've got to create opportunities for them. And those
   things have to begin happening now. (Burlew
   2005, 2b)

The chairman's words make it quite clear that race still matters in the Black Belt. It is striking to note that black commissioners in a majority black county in 2004 still felt that government was not equally responsive to black residents' interests or needs. This finding is further substantiated by James Button and David Hedge's (1996) survey of black state legislators and Carmine Scavo's (1990) survey of locally elected black officials and administrators in North Carolina's eastern black belt region. For example, Button and Hedge in their study of black state legislators found:

   Black officials [primarily in the South] are more
   likely than whites to report experiencing or
   observing discrimination within the legislature,
   to perceive such discrimination in the party and
   committee system, and to believe that black issues
   do not receive a fair hearing in the legislature. In
   addition, black lawmakers view black political
   progress over the last decade in the state in much
   more pessimistic ways than do white lawmakers."
   (Button and Hedge 1996, 214)

Thus, the tale of Gadsden County, FL coupled with research on the views of black leaders in the region prompted this reflection on the meaning of the highly celebrated 40th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act (August 6, 2005). …