one in the chamber came to Sumner's aid; it was just after the U.S.
Supreme Court had ruled that Blacks had no rights that a white man is
bound to respect, and five years before the onset of Civil War. Sumner
was alone. Yet he rose from his convalescent bed to carry on the anti-slavery
fight; introduced to the Senate the 13th amendment, to abolish slavery,
in 1864; authored the bill that created the Freedmen's Bureau; and crafted
the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which passed a year after his death.
began his political career as an opponent of unjust, imperial war, denouncing
the looming land grab against Mexico in a speech to Boston city officials
on the Fourth of July, 1845. He opposed annexation of Texas as a slave
state. Sumner set a standard of principle and courage, by which to measure
Paul Wellstone on the road to becoming a Charles Sumner? These are different
times; no rightwing thug of a congressman would break a cane over a
Senator's head in an age of tooth-flashing, public relations politics.
But there are parallels and, although 12 years in office was not long
enough to take comparable measure of the man, Wellstone was walking
a Sumner-like path.
Wellstone fought the good fight for and with us, and was truer
to the cause than an
embarrassing number of Black lawmakers. His untimely death should occasion
a reassessment of where Black interests lie, and who are the real soldiers
and allies in the struggle.
good as it gets
voting record rivals the most progressive members of the Congressional
Black Caucus (CBC). He earned 100 percent scores from the AFL-CIO and
the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. A
vote for labor is a vote in the interests of African Americans, who
are overwhelmingly working class and the most active members of labor
unions. This is not a matter of discretion or of keeping friends in
both camps. On major national legislative matters, Black interests and
labor interests have long been identical. Strong Black voices within
labor have fought hard to make it so. Wellstone was an absolutely dependable
better ally than Black "Blue Dog Coalition" Democrats Sanford
Bishop (GA) and Harold Ford, Jr. (TN), who are the only Congressional
Black Caucus members to fall below 90% on the AFSCME scorecard, at 82%
and 87%, respectively. Ford is angling to run for the Senate.
of the CBC consistently rate 97 - 100% pro-labor.
was among ten Senate members of the 107th Congress earning perfect,
100% scores from the NAACP. One-third of the entire Senate rated an
"A", with 90%-plus pro-NAACP agenda votes.
of the CBC, however, scored only Bs and Cs. The three C-rated lawmakers
(70 - 79%) were Bishop, Juanita Millender-McDonald (CA), and Carrie
Meek (FL), who barely passed at 72%.
rights and civil liberties look slightly different from the perspectives
of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet Wellstone tied
Russ Feingold (D-WI) for number two with an 86% ACLU rating. (Only Rhode
Island Republican Lincoln Chafee scored higher; at 100%, Chafee is an
example of conservative libertarianism.)
CBC's members were clustered at the top of the House, by the ACLU's
grading methods for the 106th Congress. Five out of six Black lawmakers
earned 86%-plus ratings on issues of drug policy, campaign finance,
abortion rights, juvenile justice, race and criminal justice, and flag
desecration (the wild card). Florida's Alcie Hastings (93%) and Robert
Scott, of Virginia (94%), were the most pro-civil liberties. Sliding
toward bottom were Albert Wynn, of Maryland (81%), Alabama Rep. Earl
Hilliard (75%), Harold Ford (64%) and Sanford Bishop (50%).
the absence of the strongest protections of core civil liberties - freedom
of speech, privacy, association, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment,
equal protection under the law - the precarious perch on which Black
America sits is vulnerable to destruction at the onset of any civil
crisis. It is at times of crisis that one depends on true allies. There
is every reason to believe that Wellstone could be depended on, which
is more than can be said of some African American congressional representatives.
primacy of character
three frames of reference we have employed demonstrate Wellstone's near-perfect
progressive domestic voting record - and provide benchmarks with which
to judge all lawmakers, including Blacks - but they do not set him apart
from a number of living and dead Senators. The quality that distinguishes
comrades in struggle from otherwise attractive political packages, is
character. And character is proven most conclusively on issues of war
Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee displayed singular courage of conviction,
as the only vote in either chamber of Congress against Bush's
Afghanistan authorization, following the events of September 11.
first vote on assuming his seat in 1991 was to say "No" to
Bush Senior's Gulf War - the only Senator brave enough to defy the White
House. Among his last votes was "No" to Bush Jr's formula
for permanent war, starting with Iraq. Of the Senators running for office
this year, Wellstone alone dared to buck the tides of war.
comparison must be made with Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., of Memphis, the
aspiring Black Senator from Tennessee. While Wellstone risked his seat
to register a principled vote against war, Ford veers ever further from
the mainstream of the Congressional Black Caucus and historical African
American opinion in order to position himself as a Senate candidate.
Who is most valuable to Black interests, a Harold Ford, who bowed to
Bush's war powers demands, or a Paul Wellstone?
war is an issue of life and death to Black soldiers, Black cities, and
Black hopes for the future. No American group is more affected by the
fortunes of war and peace - which is why Blacks have been consistently
opposed to U.S. military adventurism for more than 30 years. Bush could
spend between $100 and $200 billion dollars making the Middle East safe
for Big Oil, utterly destroying any prospect of a federal role in alleviating
the urban crisis. The result: Black bodies on the streets and on the
battlefields, the dreams of a people incinerated at home and abroad.
The Vietnam War killed the War on Poverty, nullifying a universe of
to imperial war must be considered, therefore, an indivisible element
in measuring any politician's solidarity with Black interests. By this
standard, the role model value of a Black face in high position, is
less than nil. Black cowardice in high places shames and misleads us.
12 years in the Senate trumps the late Senator Hubert Humphrey's far
longer career as a progressive icon, begun so boldly at the Democratic
national convention of 1948, where the young Mayor of Minneapolis delivered
a fiery speech in defense of the party's new civil rights platform.
Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats fled the party, and would have taken a cane
to Humphrey if they'd had the chance. Yet 16 years later, Humphrey's
principles evaporated in the presence of Power, in the person of Lyndon
Johnson, who ordered soon-to-be-Vice President Humphrey to betray the
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its bid to be seated at the
1964 convention, and to betray the cause of world peace, thereafter.
two Black U.S. senators of the 20th century will forever be noted, of
course. Senator Edward Brooke (1966 - 79) fit snugly in the mold of
the liberal Massachusetts Republican Party of his day, and Illinois
Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun (1992 - 98) did little to shock anyone's
it is a bit too much to compare Paul Wellstone to the great Charles
Sumner. The abolitionist's lonely stand in the Senate and the beating
he took is remembered because of what came after: the conflict that
became a glorious war of Emancipation. We now stand on the verge of
war with no end, a horror that Wellstone may have seen coming back in
1991, when he stood alone against George The Elder. The full context
of history has yet to be written.
But history should intrude on our daily deliberations,
simply because it stretches forth to touch the present, whether we notice
or not. When good men pass, we do them honor by marking the places they
have gone, and the intersections of their paths with our own.
Wellstone walked with us.
NAACP Legislative Report Card
Voter Guide and Scorecard
National Freedom Scorecard