The Perils of Black Political Power

As we are on the eve of what may be the most powerful Black achievement in U.S. history, it would be well to examine the history of Black political leadership in this country.

Most historical researchers look to the 1967 election of Carl Stokes, (1927-1996), as Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio as the emergence of Black political power in major American cities.  Many Blacks saw this as the beginning of an age of freedom for our people.

From the 1960s to now, we most certainly have been disabused of that notion.

For while Black political leadership has surely been a source of pride, they have not been a source of black political power.

 That’s because as agents of the States, they must defend the interests of the State, even when this conflicts with the interests of their people.

For example, let’s look at the experience of Mayor Stokes.

Shortly after taking office, Stokes appointed former U.S. Army Lt.-General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. as his public safety director (a kind of super police chief).  General Davis, fresh from the rigors of Vietnam, ordered 30,000 rounds of hollow point (or dum-dum) bullets, items in violation of the laws of war.

The object of his ire?  The Cleveland branch of the Black Panther Party, and a local office of the National Committee to Combat Fascism, a Panther support group.

In August 1970, General Davis resigned from the post, and criticized Mayor Stokes for not giving him sufficient support in his battle against radicals like the Panthers.

 Stokes, the more politically adroit of the two, made Davis look bad for ordering ammo which violated the Geneva Conventions, but Stokes’ personal papers revealed meetings between the two men, and their agreement on dum-dums as appropriate arms to be used against Panthers.

 Just because he was a Black mayor, didn’t mean he wasn’t dedicated to destroying a Black organization.  Indeed, in times of Black uprising and mass discontent, Black mayors seem the perfect instrument of repression, for they dispel charges of racism.

If Barack Obama wins the White House, it will be a considerable political achievement.  It will be made possible only by the votes of millions of whites, most especially younger voters.

This does not diminish such an achievement, it just sharpens the nature of it.

But Black faces in high places does not freedom make.

Power is far more than presence.  It is the ability to meet people’s political objectives of freedom, independence and material well-being.

We are as far from those objectives as we were in 1967.

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Source: Nissim-Sabat, Ryan, "Panthers Set Up Shop in Cleveland," p.111; from Judson L. Jeffries, ed., COMRADES: Local History of the Black Panther Party  (Blomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 89-144.


Mumia Abu-Jamal is an acclaimed American journalist and author who has been writing from Death Row for more than twenty-five years. Mumia was sentenced to death after a trial that was so flagrantly racist that Amnesty International dedicated an entire report to describing how the trial "failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings."  The complete report is posted here: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR51/001/2000

Mumia is author of many books, including Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners vs. The USA, forthcoming from City Lights Books. www.citylights.com

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