Byline: Charlie Patton, The Times-Union
When Alton Yates Jr., 67, was growing up in Jacksonville, his parents and all the parents of his friends were registered Republicans.
It wasn't so much that Jacksonville's African-American residents preferred Republicans to Democrats, although as the party of Abraham Lincoln, Republicans had historically been more sympathetic to blacks than Democrats.
But in Jacksonville in those days, as in many other places in the South, blacks were not allowed to register as Democrats. The whites-only Democratic primary was one of the ways white Southerners assured that black Southerners would have little, if any, political influence.
The epic struggle that was the civil rights movement would change that, leading to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Four decades -- and a few history lessons -- later, African-Americans in the region have clout at the polls. But the sweeping changes that have taken place in the last 40 years have somewhat offset that clout, leaving some disappointment.
"My vote certainly makes a difference, but perhaps not as much of a difference as might have been anticipated when they passed those laws 40 years ago," said Carolyn Williams, a professor of history at the University of North Florida.
"We still have a ways to go, but that's not due anymore to artificial impediments to the right to vote," Yates said.
A starting point
In Jacksonville, things began to change in the mid-1940s, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case that whites-only primaries were unconstitutional. Dallas Graham, a Jacksonville pastor and funeral director, then successfully sued to register as a Democrat in 1946.
As a result, when Yates first registered to vote, he was able to register as a Democrat, although the first vote he remembers casting was for Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, a couple of years after Yates graduated from Stanton High School.
Although whites-only primaries had been outlawed, plenty of impediments remained to prevent black Southerners from voting. They included literacy tests, character tests and poll taxes, as well as intimidation. That's why the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was considered so important.
On the surface, the changes that occurred in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act might make it seem that black voters in the South continue to be marginalized, their right to vote rendered ineffective by the dominant white majority.
The fortunes of the Democratic Party, with which the vast majority of black voters have aligned, have been in decline in the South since 1964. Meanwhile, although many blacks have successfully run for office, the percentage of black officeholders still does not reflect the percentage of blacks in the overall population.
But to say the black vote doesn't matter in the South would be a misreading of a more complex picture. As Earl Black and Merle Black observe in their 2002 book The Rise of Southern Republicans, no Democrat can expect to be elected without mobilizing African-American voters as much as possible.
When John Edwards ran against an incumbent Republican in the 1998 Senate race in North Carolina, Edwards won only 42 percent of the white vote. But he took 92 percent of the black vote and won by more than 83,000 votes.
When Democrat Bill Nelson defeated Republican Bill McCollum in Florida's 2000 race for the U.S. Senate, Nelson got less than half of the white vote but won easily thanks to receiving 88 percent of the black vote.
A shift in power
It's ironic that African-Americans are so crucial to the Democrats, because in the era when blacks had little political influence, the Democratic Party dominated Southern politics. In 1950, there were no Republicans in the U.S. Senate and only two in the U. …