Video: Keeping the black vote

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 3/1/2004 7:49:43 PM ET 2004-03-02T00:49:43

Melinda Emerson said, "I think that African Americans very largely have been taken for granted."

Michael Pearson said, “We’re not in the equation!”

It was only 40 years ago, but memories of what was known as “The Struggle” have become as grainy as the old black and white film - unless you were there.

"We intend to march to Montgomery!" That young civil rights activist receiving a near-fatal blow to the head in Selma, Ala., grew up to be U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who is today very worried that young black voters have forgotten what Democrats have done for them.

“More and more of these young people are saying, ‘That was then — what about now?  What about the future?  Show me something,’” Lewis said.

The Penrose Diner in Philadelphia is a long way from Selma. And NBC’s four lunch guests know they owe a lot to those who fought and died back then, but that’s where the conversation gets interesting.

Pearson was an officer in the first Gulf War and an Ivy League business school graduate who owns his own local business and goes his own way politically. “We should really not give our vote to the Democratic Party,” Pearson said. “... We should sit down and truly look at choices.”

Two graduate students, two business owners, one of them a third-generation college graduate.  All four are thankful for “The Struggle” of 40 years ago, but they are also struggling with today’s political reality.

“I don't think it matters who I vote for,” said Dana Crawford. “I feel totally betrayed by voting in America at this time. Disconnected. And just really disheartened."

That's an opinion heard more and more these days and it's a troubling one for Democratic Party strategists who for a generation have grown to rely on African Americans as their most loyal voting bloc.

Crawford commented, “I was raised under the assumption that you voted Democratic — if you’re black, that’s how you vote.” Emerson added, “I don’t think my mom ever said, ‘Vote Democrat,’ but I think it was implied more than anything else."

The ’60s
Those were the days of Kennedy — "The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened" — Johnson — "Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society?" — King — "We not only have a right to be free, we have a duty to be free" — and then another Kennedy — "I think people can get along and live together."  But now, nothing is taken for granted.

"Can you say the Democratic Party is more apt to be sympathetic and activist in issues that involve the African-American community?" I asked.  Pearson replied: "I think that could be a fair statement, but you have to prove it.  It simply can't be lip service."

These are the latest numbers: A full third of young African-American voters now say they’re independents.  And you can easily hear why.

"I think that neither party has really been held accountable by African-American voters,” said Emerson. "And I think that nowadays people are really looking at every candidate individually and not just blanketly supporting one party or another.  We need candidates who talk about issues that are important to African-American people. Things like unemployment. Things like diversity. Things like opportunities for small, disadvantaged businesses," she added.

"I don't feel like the candidates really care about my vote too much, either.  They're not talking about things that are important to me," said Crawford. "I was one of those college students that was all about voting. I wore the stickers. I was driving the vans, honking the horns: "Come out! Vote! Yes!"  I was all about voting," she added.

Michael Coppage said, “You see it in the kids. They’re not thinking about Democratic or Republican, they’re thinking about life or death.”

Not one of the four has a favorite candidate in this year’s crowded race for the White House. Coppage, a teacher, has yet to vote in any election and won’t this year, “It’s just completely alien, and I feel so disconnected from them.”

Lewis says that is the danger.  He says Democrats are much more likely to deliver for African Americans, but it's the Republicans who have been making inroads: "I'm deeply concerned that my party, the Democratic Party, may be ... just may be being left out and left behind when it comes to young professional African Americans."

Michael Pearson added, “I have 74 employees.  I go into any election thinking, ‘How am I going to provide for my other family?’”

They are the children of the struggle for freedom — now they're using it to choose what's best for them.

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