Leonard N. Moore’s book “The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972” is set in an election year that eerily parallels the upcoming 2020 presidential race.
Back in 1972, Richard Nixon ran for reelection after having been elected president four years prior in a backlash against Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which included passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. More than four decades later, Donald Trump is running for reelection in 2020 after running his first campaign in backlash to Barack Obama’s eight years in office.
Nixon won the popular vote in the 1968 election by a slim 0.7% margin, but he won the electoral college by a landslide, as did Trump in the 2016 election. Promising to decelerate racial progress with overt appeals to white voters and vowing to take a hard line on violence and crime, Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” as the New Left and hippie culture took hold and the Black Power movement became a global and cultural phenomenon. Nixon received approximately 10% of the Black vote in 1968. Trump received 8% of the Black vote in 2016, more than John McCain and George W. Bush had received in previous elections.
Against the backdrop of Nixon’s reelection campaign and in an effort to bring together factions in the Black freedom struggle, the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) was born. Held in Gary, Indiana, the convention was an attempt to develop a Black political agenda that bridged the philosophies of the Black nationalists and the Black moderates. About 10,000 people attended the convention, including iconic leaders like Julian Bond, Barbara Jordan, Amari Baraka, Charles Diggs, Richard Hatcher and Jesse Jackson as well as 18-year-old Al Sharpton, who had established the National Youth Movement a year before and was appointed to the Platform Committee. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, FBI informants swarmed the convention, infiltrating nearly every major state delegation.
A preamble to the convention was released called “Black Politics at the Crossroads,” drafted by Vincent Harding and Bill Strickland of the Institute for the Black World. Harding and Strickland argued the NBPC was coming to Gary “in an hour of great promise for Black America.” Maintaining that the white nation stood on the brink of chaos and that white politicians offered “no hope for real change,” they believed the Black community was faced with an amazing opportunity and a “frightening choice: We may choose in 1972 to slip back into the decadent white politics of America life, or we may press forward, moving relentlessly from Gary to the creation of our own Black life. The choice is large but the time is very short.”
In the end, the time proved to be too short. The nationalists and moderates could never reach agreement, and delegates left the NBPC without forming a new political party (the desire of many attendees) or developing a clear agenda. Nixon won reelection that year—with 18% of the Black vote.
We checked in with Moore to learn more about the parallels between 1972 and 2020 and his thoughts on the upcoming presidential race and Black voter issues.
Why couldn’t the Black nationalists and the Black moderates come to agreement on an agenda in 1972?
Looking back, one must realize that the goals of Black nationalists and the goals of Black moderates were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Black nationalists believed in working outside of the system to achieve Black liberation, whereas Black moderates and Black elected officials believed that reforming the system was a more practical approach. Both sides agreed, however, that despite their strong support of the Democratic party in past elections, going back to Roosevelt’s New Deal, Black voters received nothing in return.
The Black community does not seem to have a clear agenda for 2020. Are the reasons similar to those in 1972?
Their reasons are somewhat similar. Part of the problem is that the Black community is unable to agree upon what should be the most pressing issue. While the community is not divided along Black nationalist/Black moderate lines, it is divided to a great degree by class. For instance, the reason police brutality is such a salient issue in the Black community is because it is one of the only issues that has the potential to affect all African Americans regardless of socio-economic status.
In 2016, the number of Blacks who voted fell by 765,000—the first time Blacks, as a share of voters, has declined since 2004. Did the Democratic party fail Black voters in 2016, and is the party neglecting Black voter issues now?
Having Barack Obama as the presidential candidate contributed to high voter turnout in 2008 and 2012. About 11% of Black voters stayed home in 2016. Eight percent voted for Trump. Some believe that Blacks stayed home instead of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of the crime bill that former President Bill Clinton passed that sent more Blacks to prison for nonviolent crimes than during any other administration in history. But we must realize that the level of Black turnout for President Obama’s two elections will largely never be matched again.
One of the positive things that came out of the Gary, Indiana convention was that the number of Blacks who ran for office surged. By the end of the 1970s, the number of Blacks holding public office had quadrupled. Do you foresee anything that significant coming out of the 2020 election?
Trump’s election has ushered in a movement across Black America as thousands of ordinary, everyday people are running for office at the local level: city council, school board, various boards and commissions, and judgeships. I believe that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.
We can’t discount Trump’s Black supporters, however. Will we see his Black support increasing as Richard Nixon’s did in 1972?
I wouldn’t be surprised at an increase in Black Trump supporters in 2020. He has been good for Blacks in terms of low unemployment. The Black middle class is thriving. He has also increased support for historically Black colleges and universities, and there is a segment of the Black community that agrees with his hard line on illegal immigration.