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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Dr. King’s words still ring true, 61 years on

A few words on the difficulty of voting while black.

As we mark what would have been his 89th birthday, it seems fitting to recall that Martin Luther King spoke to that difficulty in a 1957 speech whose words ring relevant 61 years later. "All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters," lamented King.

As he saw it, neither political party was blameless. He castigated Democrats for capitulating to the rabid racists of their Southern wing — the so-called "Dixiecrats" — and blasted Republicans for caving in to "right-wing reactionary Northerners."

"Both political parties," he said, "have betrayed the cause of justice."

While there are no more Dixiecrats and the right-wing reactionaries to whom the GOP kowtows are more likely to be found in the South and Midwest now than in the North, it is noteworthy that King’s central point remains valid. Neither party covers itself with glory where African-Americans are concerned. To the contrary, African-American issues — police reform, job discrimination, mass incarceration — routinely go unaddressed by both.

And here, someone will demand to know how it is, if both parties share blame, black voters remain overwhelmingly loyal to one of them, reliably casting about 90 percent of their presidential ballots for Democrats. But it isn’t that hard to understand.

Imagine you have two suitors. One of them tends to ignore you, often seems ashamed to be seen with you, but occasionally brings you flowers. The other beats you.

If you must date one, is it any wonder you’d choose the former?

So Republicans, who pioneered the Southern strategy, opened the 1980 election praising state’s rights, demonized Willie Horton, gutted the Voting Rights Act, issued coded appeals to white racial resentment, demeaned the first African-American president, and were hit just last year by federal judges for a photo ID law designed with "surgical precision" to stop black North Carolinians from voting, have no standing to ask black people, "Why don’t you like us?"

Unfortunately, the GOP’s resort to these "conniving methods" has left Democrats no meaningful competition for the black vote — and where competition is absent, neglect invariably flourishes. Although they occasionally come bearing flowers — e.g., Barack Obama’s quiet dismantling of the War on Drugs — Democrats are far too likely to ignore black issues or, at best, pay lip service to them. And they are forever stepping over black voters while giving the high sign to white ones, like a married man winking and mouthing "call me" to some other woman while his wife is standing there.

Witness Democrat Doug Jones, elected to the Senate in December over that odor in a cowboy hat, Republican Roy Moore. According to election postmortems, Jones owed the upset in large part to African-American voters, women in particular. Yet days later, there he was on cable news, pivoting to the right, warning that he would side with Republicans on certain issues. So much for gratitude to the voters who gave him his victory.

But one gets used to being shoved aside when voting while black.

Indeed, it says something that presidential candidates routinely spend more time discussing the concerns of 50,000 coal miners than those of 43 million black people. What it says is that African-American votes, like African-American lives, count for less.

"Give us the ballot," demanded King in 1957. And yes, much has changed since then.

But in some sense, we’re still waiting.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.
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