BlackAgendaReport.com executive editor Glen Ford and founding member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation Eugene Puryear discuss the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. August 6 marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act. The act, despite some popular misunderstanding, does not offer or deny the right to vote, but was ostensibly designed as a protection of already existing rights. In 2013 the Supreme Court weakened the act saying that it was no longer a necessity. And particularly now with a black president perhaps many more agree. Moreover, there has been some attention paid to HB 589, passed in North Carolina just after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling which weakened Voting Rights Act, attacking specifically provisions for same-day registration, early voting, out-of-precinct registration and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds. But beyond issues of registration or numbers of black elected officials, there remains a question more appropriate now than when it was initially asked in 1971 by George Jackson. That is, what is an honest election after the fact of monopoly capital? And it is there that I’d like to begin this segment with our guests Glen Ford, executive editor and founder of Black Agenda Report.com, and Eugene Puryear, author, activists, and founding member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Welcome to you both, to the Real News Network. GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thank you. EUGENE PURYEAR, AUTHOR, ACTIVIST: Thank you. BALL: So Glen, as I asked in my intro, is there any value at all to the focus, all this focus on the Voting Rights Act, given the value of the vote in this moment of extreme concentration of wealth and its impact on elections in this country? Isn’t George Jackson more right now than ever? FORD: Well of course there’s a value in understanding one’s history. In terms of elections in the United States, nothing takes place outside of the purview of monopoly capital. It’s interesting, until the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and related developments, there was one, only one party of capital in the South, and that was the Democratic party. And much of the civil rights movement was concerned with integrating that Democratic party, with getting rid of the all-white Democratic primary. Once we had the Voting Rights Act, and three years later Richard Nixon, a Republican, puts in effect his Southern strategy, we see the movement of right people out of the Democratic party and the concomitant result among black folks that today not only are almost all black elected officials Democrats, but virtually all of the major black [sific] organizations are also annexes of the Democratic party. I’m talking about the NAACP and the National Urban League, virtually all of the leadership conference on civil rights. Certainly Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, basically all of them. And when this black political class calls a summit meeting, as they pompously sometimes do, what it really turns into, what it really is, is a meeting of black Democrats. And that means that this leadership class, entirely Democratic, is absolutely incapable of speaking up for the interests of the masses of black folks against the forces of Wall Street who really control the Democratic party apparatus. These folks, these black Democrats, collaborate every day with the ruling class. This wedding of, this absorption in of the Democratic party has meant that the last two generations there’s been no independent black politics in the United States, and we’re not going to see any independent black politics in the United States until the advent of a new mass, grassroots black movement. That’s where the leadership will come from. BALL: Eugene Puryear, let me ask you basically the same question, especially given your experience as a left of the Democratic party activist, and even a former candidate for DC city council. How do you see where we are 50 years into the Voting Rights Act, and where we are with the vote in general? Particularly how activists themselves see the value of the vote? PURYEAR: Absolutely. Well, I think that there are three main points, really, to be considered here. I think one is that if you really look at the genesis of the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights movement, what’s most notable about the civil rights movement is that it made significant political change, however you evaluate it, without very many votes at all. Sort of in the same way that the labor movement historically in the United States was able to make many gains in many of the initial strikes that took place that led up to the National Labor Relations Act happened when strikes were still illegal. So I think sometimes we get too caught up in the machinery of what may be called a democracy, I consider it an oligarchy with Republican characteristics, whatever the political form is of this capitalist system. I would say second to that the post-1965 history has shown the strong limitations of the right to vote. Not that it was unimportant. But that at the end of the day the key element in capitalism is capital, which by and large is outside of the control of municipalities to the extent they are well-meaning to direct in any significant way, and most of the times they are not well meaning. And as Mr. Ford says, many times they are essentially bought off adjuncts of one of the two major parties and are essentially acting in the stead of capital. All that being said, I think that there is still some value to this fight for a few different reasons. I don’t think that it’s the key arena. I don’t think it should be focused on the key arena. But we do have the fact that the words and the voting rights act are really written in the blood of the martyrs of the black liberation movement who sacrificed for years to have the right to exist as citizens inside of this country, a human right that was denied to them despite their birthplace here. And I think that there is importance to that. Are we going to allow the right wing to restrict the ability of black people to vote in this country purely for partisan political gain? I think as activists, you cannot change the system through voting. If you want to change the capitalist system, which is what you need to do to get to the root and solve, not just deal with but solve the problems that afflict us, the oppression, exploitation, you have to overthrow the system. Which sometimes requires running candidates, using that leverage, getting into office, using that leverage. Which means that it’s very important for us to protect our strategic role here, I think, with the right to vote. I mean, there’s a role here, I think, with the right to vote. I mean, there’s not too many people to vote here right now. If you’re in North Carolina, most of the Democrats aren’t that well. Look at Kay Hagan. She’s against, an anti-immigrant individual. But nevertheless, what if there was, what if the Glen Ford-Eugene Puryear party was on the ballot in North Carolina and we needed masses of black people to come out from the point of [press sectors] we would certainly want to protect our ability to mobilize our people. So that’s sort of the context I look at this at. BALL: I always have to say that I want people to go back and check federalist paper number 10 from James Madison. Please see how the vote and the electoral system in this country was designed specifically to prevent the kind of change that people associate with voting. But in the few minutes we have left I thought, Glen, obviously you can respond to anything you’ve just heard. But I was hoping to get a comment from both of you, a little bit extending what you’ve already talked about. The process by which Johnson came to even sign the voting rights act in the first place. Never mind what he’s quoted as saying at the signing, it’s clear he did not have the genuine interests of black advancement at heart. What led to him signing the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago tomorrow in the first place? FORD: Well, it was a black movement of masses of people in the street. You know, this decade of the ’60s was really a full 10 years long, or longer, or shorter, was the most productive period, political period, I believe, in black history. And so much was accomplished, it goes far beyond the civil rights struggle, the struggle to guarantee black constitutional rights. The dialog, the alignment, the deep discussion about the nature of self-determination, all of this is gelling during this dynamic period. And that had the powers that be quite nervous about what kind of America was being born out of this discussion within the black community and with our allies. And of course, cities were burning with some regularity. And so of the measurement of black political power, if it’s limited to just voting power, it really sells short our capabilities in this country. There’s much more to politics than just voting. And in fact that’s one of the tools that the rulers use to keep voters feeling powerless, is to say that, it’s to define all politics as being going to some polling, some polling booth every two or four, six years. BALL: Eugene, let me ask you to respond to the same question. And of course, anything that Glen just said. PURYEAR: Yes. I mean, I certainly agree 100 percent. I mean, I think that at the end of the day, what we’re really looking at here is the fact that the powers that be respond to threats. I think we saw that in the, there’s the famous letter that exists from the gentleman who was the Supreme Court justice, it’s eluding me now, about the shotgun attack on the system, as he called it. The fear that he had and that is expressed in that letter, of not just the masses rising in the street, but how that revolutionary action had polarized society to such a degree that you even had what he considered the quote-unquote respectable elements starting to embrace more radical and in some cases revolutionary politics. So certainly, Lyndon Johnson who, if you read both the Taylor Branch biographies, books about the civil rights movement. The Caro biography of him. Master of politics. He understood his role to maintain the system both at home and abroad. The massive–the war, the imperialist war in Vietnam that he knew from the beginning could not be won, but millions of people had to be killed in some misguided attempt to maintain the imperial prestige of the United States of America. And certainly they were moving in response to the broader international context of the anti-colonial upsurge and the need to try to find a way to resolve the quote-unquote negro problem in order to move forward with the imperialist agenda. I’d certainly agree that there are many, many other ways that politics take place. It happens in the street, it happens in the workplace. As individuals who act collectively we have social power. The ability to disrupt this profit-making system, that’s the ultimate power. And how we use it in a myriad of ways is what will be the most important thing going forward. FORD: Let me just add one point very briefly. The real danger to black folks’ right to vote is not so much in these voter IDs that threaten small groups of black folks who can’t get voter ID cards and such. It comes directly from the state. From the corporate state, which denies us the ability to vote for our local school boards. Locks up black public education in state-controlled mechanisms. And we see in this new offensive, quite frightening, in Michigan where emergency financial managers are put in charge of every majority black city in that state so that effectively half of the black folks in the state of Michigan were disenfranchised in the last several years. Those are the real threats to the real effective enfranchisement here in this country, not–although I’m not poo-poohing the threat of, through voter ID tricks and such. The real threat is through the shutting down of that which is accessible to the public through voting. BALL: Right. Well, Glen Ford and Eugene Puryear, thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News. FORD: Thank you. PURYEAR: Thank you for having me. BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. And for all involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace, if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.