Omar H. Ali, in the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States

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Omar H. Ali, In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008. Pp. 170. Paper $19.95.

Since the colonial era, African Americans have been involved in political affairs, seeking avenues through which they could gain freedom and equal protection of the laws. Black independent politics have shaped social and political activism and many other important facets of the "American experiment." How African Americans organized, agitated, and pushed for their civil rights is the subject of Omar H. Ali's In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States. In six chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue, Ali discusses how and why African Americans sought change through third-party political movements. Beginning with the antislavery activism of Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and Martin Delany, Ali found that the formation of separate political organizations has been an invaluable part of black political activism. Ali demonstrates how the moral imperative to end slavery forced reform-minded whites and free African Americans to come together. At the same time, he points to the inherent difficulties of maintaining political coalitions across racial lines.

One of the most problematic aspects of U.S. electoral politics has been the preponderance of the two-party system, which tends to exclude and punish those who leave these two political reservations in search of greener pastures. This historical reality has wreaked havoc on African Americans' attempts to lift themselves out of bondage and second-class citizenship. In examining the various debates over tactics, strategies, and electoral participation among antislavery leaders such as Gerrit Smith, Lewis Tappan, and William Lloyd Garrison, Ali shows that white reformers could be in favor of ending slavery immediately, and still discriminate against women, African Americans, and other people of color. The failure of the strategy of moral suasion brought about a split in the abolitionist movement, and many black and white reformers embraced a third-party movement and the formation of the Liberty Party in 1840.

In the discussion of the "Free Soil" movement and "Grand Old Party" in the 1850s and the "fusion politics" practiced by Populist Party leaders at the end of the 19th century, Ali links economics to the formation of third-party movements. Also noteworthy is the examination of the central role that fraternal organizations, churches, and civic groups played in third-party political activism in the African American community. …