Bankole: Democrats in 2020 should learn from 1964 campaign

Bankole Thompson

The issues of the 1964 presidential race, along with a speech that civil rights leader Malcolm X gave, seem to be playing out in the 2020 presidential election.

Just as black poverty, unemployment and racial injustice were hot issues when Democrat Lyndon Johnson was running for president against Republican Barry Goldwater, they carry more urgency now in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement that has gained momentum with the recent protests against police brutality.

In his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech in Detroit, Malcolm X said: “You're the one who has that power. You can keep Johnson in Washington, D.C., or you can send him back to his Texas cotton patch. You're the one who sent Kennedy to Washington. You're the one who put the present Democratic administration in Washington, D.C. The whites were evenly divided. It was the fact that you threw 80% of your votes behind the Democrats that put the Democrats in the White House.”

In this Jan. 4, 2017 file photo, Vice President Joe Biden appears with President Barack Obama at Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va. Obama and Biden are reuniting on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, for their first joint appearance of the 2020 campaign.

He added, “When you see this, you can see that the Negro vote is the key factor. And despite the fact that you are in a position to be the determining factor, what do you get out of it? The Democrats have been in Washington, D.C., only because of the Negro vote. ... You put them first and they put you last. Because you're a chump! A political chump.”

Today, many view presidential candidate Joe Biden and his party as simply exploiting the black vote. While Malcolm X didn’t give the Republican Party a pass either, he nuked out the Democrats in his speech because they claim to be a friend to the black community.

The fact that Johnson was running for president and touting the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which his opponent Goldwater vehemently opposed, did not stop Malcolm X from indicting Democrats before black voters in Detroit. 

After all, one of the biggest criticisims of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was its failure to address the deep structural and embedded inequalities in our society. It was therefore not a surprise to see that the nation at the time saw a summer of riots after the passage of the act. Detroit had its own race rebellion in 1967 under a white moderate, Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh.   

In 2020, we may not have a race riot. But we have mounting protests against police killings of unarmed African Americans which Democrats are scrambling to find an answer to. Biden has been relying on the recommendations for criminal justice reform that were carried out under former President Barack Obama. But that is not enough. His failure to come out unequivocally against police misconduct and push to reform the entire system of policing risk alienating black voters who will be crucial to any Democratic victory in November.  

The ongoing protests against police brutality and other forms of inequality are part of the protracted failures of the white liberal order to address some of the most egregious forms of injustice against Black people. It is also no accident that some of the cities where we have witnessed unspeakable police abuses have been Democratic-controlled areas like Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

Many young people are becoming increasingly frustrated with partisan politics as Democrats struggle to negotiate with those who are chanting Black Lives Matter.

In fact, Malcolm X echoed that sentiment in his speech:

“So today our people are disillusioned. They've become disenchanted. They've become dissatisfied. And in their frustrations, they want action. And in 1964, you'll see this young black man, this new generation, asking for the ballot or the bullet.”

This is the era to reject tokenism. Biden must do more to defend black humanity than name dropping Obama and reciting what Democrats have done in the past.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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