Omar H. Ali’s,In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States, could carry the title, “What I Should Have Learned in High School, But Didn’t.” Thankfully, Ali fills the gap.
To get the most out of the volume (especially because the book was published in 2008 with a revised/ updated edition released in 2020), I recommend beginning with the Afterword authored by Jacqueline Salit. You’ll read about recent circumstances that bear attention. There, Salit writes: The public desire for political freedom, for choice, for mobility, and for development among ordinary Americans is spreading.”
Not just fine rhetoric is that. “The public desire for political freedom” has legs. When Gallup queries Americans (as it does about ten times each year) and asks—“In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent?”—the majority of respondents answer Independent. And they’ve answered that way just about every time since 2004. In the most recent poll (January 2021), Gallup reported that 45% said ‘Independent.’ That’s almost twice the percentage of those who said Republican, and 15% more than those who declared Democrat.
The value of Ali’s contribution is how we got to where we are today and what they could mean for the future. And, for me (at least), understanding came from continuing to ‘read backward.’ So, next, I read Chapter Seven (the last chapter of the book), “The Black Independent Alliance in 2008,” One passage (citing Michael Dawson) stood out. “Many African Americans view their only choices—the same choices they have considered for nearly half a century (DOP 1994)—as support for the Democratic Party, support for a third-party/other independent political effort, or abstention.”
Flash forward (from 1994) to 2016. In my home state of Michigan, that third choice (abstention) was one of the primary reasons Trump took Michigan that year. Trump beat Clinton by 10,700 votes with 4.8 million votes cast in a state where 20% of the electorate is African American. Thousands of African Americans across the state—in cities like Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Saginaw—didn’t cast presidential ballots that year. Not so in 2020, though. Black voter participation increased, many more African Americans voted, and Biden carried the state.
I then read Chapter 6, “Civil Rights, Black Power, and Independent Politics,” and the beginning grabbed me hard. Ali relays the story of three African American women who, in 1964, ‘crashed’ the Democratic national nominating convention. The women were from Mississippi where, as Ali describes (at the time), “93 percent of the black electorate remained disenfranchised through a combination of threat, violence, and the force of law. Less than 7 percent of African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country, and lower than it had been in 1896.”
White Independents share much with our black brethren. We are misunderstood, marginalized, taken for granted, and with voice muted—all by an increasingly corporatized political machine called THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM.
One of the women, Fannie Lou Hamer, declared on national TV how she was treated upon trying to register to vote—fired from her job, jailed, and beaten to the point that she lost vision permanently in one eye and walks with a limp. (Mind you, back then, the culprits were Democrat, not Republican.)
Chapter 6 is full of important facts and commentary. It’s a must-read because it helps readers understand what happened immediately before and in the years following the landmark national civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Those are events to which I can relate because I lived through what Ali writes, albeit not as an African American.
That background—personal experience, but not as an African American—is the reason I give special attribution to Chapters 1-5. Those chapters represent (to me) the history class I never took. Ali begins at the outset of the Republic and takes you through the 1950s. You’ll read with interest, and sometimes outrage, what African Americans endured and rose above. Most interesting to me was reading about key figures of their day, including Peter Bestes, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Highland Garnet, Anthony Burns, John B. Rayner, Jim Kennard, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, Mary McCleod Bethune, Bishop W.J. Walls, and A. Phillip Randolph. And that’s just a partial list.
As I read those chapters, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own political metamorphosis—from Rockefeller Republican to Liberal Democrat to Progressive Independent. Each shift was compelled by the need to re-locate myself in a way that fits my (evolving) philosophy, (clarity of) spirit, and (developing) soul.
And while many of us aren’t African American, white Independents share much with our black brethren. We are misunderstood, marginalized, taken for granted, and with voice muted—all by an increasingly corporatized political machine called THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM.
As I read Chapter 5, I thought of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential valedictory speech. Eisenhower warned Americans about what he called The Military-Industrial Complex. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower said that day. He could very well have been talking about major party politics as we know it today.
Sadly, Black History Month is about the only time of year that many of us pay serious attention to the historical circumstance of African Americans. But there’s also something to be said about an ever-present opportunity—to keep learning. Ancora Imparo (I’m still learning”) is the way Michelangelo put it at age 83.
For Michelangelo, learning was a lifestyle, and that’s the ticket for people of any age. It also applies to the age in which we live today, an age that’s awash with misinformation and people with manipulative intent. The antidote to both is straightforward—knowledge—the kind you’ll find in Omar H. Ali’s book.
Omar H. Ali will talk about this book, and you can be part of the exchange, at The Politics for People Book Club. Register here to participate in this no-cost event via Zoom. The date is Sunday, February 21, 7 p.m. ET.
(This article is available for listening at Frank’s audio platform,Under the Radar.)