Fifty years ago this month, residents of south Los Angeles were witness to two watershed events in the struggle for empowerment. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act and, with it, gave millions a new sense of possibility borne of the potential for political representation and justice. Hands that once picked cotton, it was noted at the time, could now pick presidents. Voter registration would enable the newly enfranchised to elect sheriffs and judges and serve on juries.
Less than a week later, in response to a traffic stop that would become anything but “routine,” the City of Los Angeles was engulfed in a civil disturbance that would claim 34 lives and leave another 1,000 injured, 4,000 arrested, and property damage estimated at $40 million (just over $3 billion in today’s money when adjusted for inflation). Watts lay in ruins. Hands that had cast ballots for president a year earlier now threw Molotov cocktails.
In the aftermath of what would later be called the Watts Riots, the McCone Commission would attribute the fundamental causes of the rebellion to resentment, even hatred, of the police. The Los Angeles Police Department was the symbol of an oppressive civic leadership that disenfranchised Watts’ largely African American residents by denying them access to jobs, educational opportunities and public services. These conditions mirrored those in the old Confederate South. They provided the socioeconomic basis for a Civil Rights Movement that was growing increasingly impatient with the pace of change. The struggle for empowerment through political representation was on.
Since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the number of black elected officials has increased from 300 to over 9,000. In Los Angeles, African American members of Congress increased from one to as many as three. An African American was elected Mayor and served in office for 20 years. Two African Americans have since been elected to the County Board of Supervisors. For Latino, Native American and the Asian American-Pacific Islander communities, subsequent extensions of the Voting Rights Act have contributed to their enfranchisement and representation. Today, the California Legislature is among the most representative bodies in government with women, Latinos, African Americans, Asian-American-Pacific Islanders and openly LGBT members serving.
In fact, the growth of black political power as measured by the number of black elected officials is seen as the most tangible impact of the Voting Rights Act and perhaps of the whole Civil Rights Movement. The influence of African American voters and relatively high levels of civic engagement on U.S. social and economic policy has led to unprecedented gains by most objective indices: home ownership, government contracting opportunities, educational attainment, access to professions, and representation at all levels of government. Despite this progress, chronic poverty, mass incarceration, health care disparities and unemployment remain defining features of African American community life.
Fifty years after Watts and the Voting Rights Act, African Americans continue to wrestle with the legacy of institutional racism and discrimination. The ideological ferment of the 1960s and broad participation in the civic life of the community led to a variety of approaches to economic opportunity and development. As the social activism and mass participation of that era waned, so too has the enthusiasm for electoral participation, despite unprecedented success at the polls.
This situation has caused many observers to fear that hands that helped pick an African American president in 2008 and 2012 will be reluctant to vote for a candidate willing to forthrightly defend their voting rights and articulate a national policy agenda that embraces demands for jobs, peace and justice. Some African Americans even argue that their vote does not matter, does not make a difference, and does not count.
Such notions will test the political acumen and maturity of the Black Lives Matter movement. After all, if Black lives do, in fact matter, then Black votes must be made to count. That notion will be put to the test again next year, when presidential candidates will vie for votes even as voter suppression efforts aim to restrict access to the polls in jurisdictions once covered by the Voting Rights Act. Where the candidates stand on updating the Voting Rights Act, and whether they can be held accountable for their positions by historic turnout for the candidate with the best position and practice on the issue, will test the maturity of the Black Live Matter movement. The implications for African American political power are huge, and could result in either an expansion or diminution of black political representation in the legislature and Congress.
Despite all the social and economic progress since the events in Watts, and after the civil unrest that followed the Rodney King beating trial verdicts, it seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. To some, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown are all poignant reminders that something still just isn’t right. And yet, sitting on our hands during an election cycle can’t be the answer either. The battle for justice requires that we be vigilant in maintaining possession of all the tools at our disposal, and that we be strategic in their use.
In the struggle for political power and influence, abstention is retreat. Apathy is surrender. Indifference is betrayal.