If Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone had been an African American, Black America would be in deepest mourning - and for far more than symbolic reasons. In terms of supporting Black interests, Wellstone may have been the best lawmaker the U.S. Senate has produced since abolitionist Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was beaten to within an inch of his life on the Senate floor by a South Carolina congressman, in 1856, for calling all slaveholders "criminals."

No 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.

Sumner 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 future politicians.

Was 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.

Paul 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.

As good as it gets

Wellstone's 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 ally.

A 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.

Three-quarters of the CBC consistently rate 97 - 100% pro-labor.

Wellstone 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.

One-third 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%.

Civil 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.)

The 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%).

In 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.

The primacy of character

The 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 and peace.

Black 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.

Wellstone's 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.

A 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?

Imperial 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 human potentialities.

Opposition 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.

Epitaphs in context

Wellstone's 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.

The 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 sensibilities.

Perhaps 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.

Paul Wellstone walked with us.

NAACP Legislative Report Card

AFSCME Voter Guide and Scorecard

ACLU National Freedom Scorecard


Your comments are welcome. Visit the Contact Us page for E-mail or Feedback.


Bookmark and Share
Issue Number 15
November 4, 2002





If someone passed along to you make sure you visit the Free Sign Up page.

Don't miss anything!


Other commentaries in this issue:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bogus Election "Study"
Black Majette vote grossly inflated, analysis reveals By Bruce A. Dixon, Associate Editor

Guest Commentary 1
Harvard Professor Lambasts THE CRISIS Editor
Martin Kilson says magazine bolsters NAACP foe

Guest Commentary 2
Land Struggles and Democracy in Zimbabwe
by Chris Lowe

Permanent war, permanent Uncle Toms
NAACP for peace
Solitary killers and mass muderousness
Prisoners of the American gulag

Politics Trumps Religion:
Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative
By Barbara Miner

Belafonte’s courage
Race and war hysteria
Baraka’s verse
Unpaid debt in Zimbabwe

Commentaries in Issue 14 October 17 , 2002:

Permanent War: Permanent State of Emergency

Trojan Horse Watch: Bob Johnson’s message invades Black radio...Rep. Harold Ford: mess of the blue dog...The Trojan Horse TV show

Briefs:The Four Eunuchs of War...The most dangerous game...Smack, Blow, and Blowback...Lethally stupid and more...

IRAQ, WAR & COLOR RACISM: By Dr. David Graham Du Bois, Guest Commentator

A Jewish Peace Activist on Baraka’s Poem: Urban Legends by Rachael Kamel, Guest Commentator

e-MailBox: The Real Rosa Parks...NAACP challenged on war...Plato and the Emperor George...Deceitful billionaire busted...Anglo-Saxon alarmed

RE-PRINT: Harry Belafonte on Colin Powell...CNN Larry King Live Interview with Belafonte

Interview: Educate and Advocate - Henry Nicholas on social justice in America

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.