Washington DC – The ninth annual State of the Black Union symposium was held in the Crescent City of New Orleans, Louisiana this past weekend. The event which was hosted by popular radio personality Tavis Smiley was broadcast live on the CSPAN channel.
Notable participants included many representatives from various political and civil rights organizations. Representatives from both major political parties were in attendance, but Democrats clearly outnumbered Republicans. Dick Gregory, Michael Eric Dyson, Rep Eleanor Holmes Norton D (DC), Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (D) TX, Rep Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) OH, Rev Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory, Rev Al Sharpton, Donna Brazile, Mayor Ray Nagan, Michael Steele and many other stalwarts of the African American community participated.
Notable for his absence was Barack Obama who had written the organizers explaining that he was concentrating on the critical primaries states.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity on Mr. Obama’s part,” Smiley told CNN. “Now, I am not interested in demonizing him for his choice, but I do disagree with it.”
The panelists discussed a range of common issues and concerns mostly as they relate to the on-going Democratic nomination process and upcoming U.S. general elections later this year. A number of the speakers made direct reference to their candidate of choice, but most spoke of the election’s importance and implications for the country, particularly for African Americans.
Eddie Glaude a professor at Princeton University asked arguably the most important question. He asked, “What is the prize?” Some might see this as a challenge for voters to vote their self interest and to take the issue of voting seriously. Race should not be the only factor on which this very important decision is made, he suggested.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who said she was a daughter of the Caribbean, in reference to her Jamaican roots made no secret of her support for Senator Clinton. Like others though she recognized the importance of a united Democratic party, a recurring theme throughout the discussions.
Democratic political strategist and New Orleans native Donna Brazile reminded the audience that barriers to voter participation still exist. She recalled the controversial elections of 2000 when President George Bush was declared the winner as a result of faulty ballots in Florida. Many precincts in the state were forced to recount votes which were not fully punched through and resulted in the state delaying declaration of the winner. Brazile declared, “There is no place for chads” and reminded potential voters that someone paid the price for them to have the right to vote.
Civil rights activist Dick Gregory who had many in the audience on their feet applauding used the opportunity to ask probing and serious questions of both the black and white communities alike. Some he said had no conscience. This after another panelist said that voters should vote their conscience.
Nicole Lee, executive director of Trans Africa Forum introduced an international perspective to the discussion by highlighting the effects on blacks of domestic policies and foreign policies. These policies she explained affected blacks in Africa, Latin America and Caribbean countries. She noted for example that blacks in Columbia were directly affected by the US war on drugs which continues.
The Reverend Al Sharpton revived the struggles of the civil rights movement in order to remind voters of the difficult fight to earn the right to vote. He seemed particularly annoyed at those he described as “too lazy and ungrateful to get up and vote.
Hurricane Katrina survivor Herreast Harrison encouraged voter participation by imploring them to vote “in memory of our ancestors.”
The final address of the symposium was reserved for democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was the only one of the four remaining candidates who accepted an invitation to address the event. Senator Clinton’s address acknowledged the difficult election campaign and paid respect to her rival Senator Obama.
The election she said, is changing history and is in uncharted territory, because for the first time a woman or an African American will be the nominee of the Democratic party. She was among those who encouraged party unity, saying not to allow the choice to undermine the goal of winning the presidency in November. The competition for the nomination Senator Clinton said will be worked out and the Democratic Party must be united.
Vinton Grant is a freelace writer based in Washington DC