Once upon a time, the ultimate concentration of black political power in Brooklyn lay in Weeksville, a strategically planned village of free black property holders that began in 1838 in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant.
"Weeksville was created to be a political base," says Jennifer Scott, director of research at the Weeksville Heritage Center. The settlement (sometimes referred to as a colony) played a critical role in the abolitionist movement, including stops along the Underground Railroad; and it became a haven for blacks fleeing racial violence in Manhattan in the 1860s during the Civil War. Businesses, churches and a school thrived there. Eventually as the new Brooklyn Bridge made this part of Brooklyn accessible to Manhattanites and others, and as blacks spread throughout greater Brooklyn — a city separate from New York until 1898 — Weeksville ceased being a separate community and, ultimately, was forgotten.
But in the late 1960s, amid an unprecedented period of activism spurred in part by anti-poverty programs and urban-renewal plans, Weeksville was rediscovered, becoming in its own way a spur to activism.
Nearly half a century later, Charles Barron — a self-described radical, onetime Black Panther Party member and now an outspoken representative of eastern Brooklyn on the New York City Council — pronounces the state of black politics in Brooklyn as dire. "We are in a state of powerlessness. We have power within our hands; we just won't collectively use it." Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns, the dean of the Brooklyn congressional delegation, echoes that sentiment, noting that from city council to state legislature to Congress, black Brooklyn is present, but not necessarily potent. "We have a tremendous amount of potential, and in many instances we are not utilizing it. But it's there," he said, adding: "We do not talk to each other enough to come up with an agenda we all can rally around."
Kevin Powell, a writer and activist who is challenging Towns in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, says blacks in Brooklyn are ridiculously disempowered when compared with their ranks of elected officials. There is, indeed, potential, he says, but too many office-holders have formed "little ghetto monarchies" where "they think they own a political seat and think they own a piece of Brooklyn." Their main interest, he says, is in keeping themselves, their relatives and their friends in power. Powell and others say they have turned off younger middle-class entrepreneurs, professionals and homeowners who have found alternative means of addressing black Brooklyn's socioeconomic needs and perhaps of ultimately displacing entrenched political power.
From the sidelines, Al Sharpton, a Brooklyn scion whose sights have long spread beyond local black politics but whose Godfather-like seal of approval is coveted by prospective candidates, says that even with the evolving spheres of influence, "the bad news is none of it is coordinated."
Welcome to Brooklyn 2010, home to about 954,960 blacks, more than any other county in the United States. Whites of the non-Hispanic variety number about 944,690; Hispanics about 492,880. Harlem in Manhattan has the name and the cultural icons, but Brooklyn has the numbers, and its politics are if not drama-filled. A member of the city council was assassinated — yes, assassinated — in the council chamber by a rival in 2003. There's a reason Brooklyn has been immortalized in rap lyrics, a Mike Tyson tattoo and with the "Bed-Stuy Do or Die" antics of Spike Lee's film Do The Right Thing. In Brooklyn, known for its political pageantry, the streets speak to the suites.
As a founder of the UDC, Thomas R. Jones helped launch a base of political enlightenment and activism among the poor in 1966. Accompanying New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on a more-or-less routine walkabout through black slums, he told the senator that the one thing Bedford-Stuyvesant did not need was to be studied yet again. As The New York Times recounted in Jones' 2006 obituary: " 'I'm weary of study, senator, very weary,' " Justice Jones said. "‘The Negro people are angry, senator, and judge that I am, I'm angry too.' " Soon Kennedy set into motion what became the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, intended to be a model for the nation, and Jones, a longtime fighter for social justice who was then a trial court judge, was its first chair. Among those who emerged from that was Al Vann, now a member of the city council and, according to Towns, the person black Brooklynites of all persuasions tend to turn to for guidance.
For many decades, even before elected officials and activists emerged from the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s and 1970s, there were powerful ministers like Gardner Taylor and Milton A. Galamison and William Augustus Jones — close allies of Martin Luther King Jr. — who harnessed the power of their constituents and acted upon economic, education and civil rights issues during what was still very much an "Up South" era of Brooklyn history. In 1962, for instance, when the Brooklyn chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) was the most active in the North, these ministers and others joined Brooklyn CORE in a dramatic protest, demanding jobs for blacks during construction of a major medical center. Together they fought to break the barriers that prevented blacks from moving into certain neighborhoods and into new housing developments. But that was then.
Barron says that many younger participants in the political system don't have "the fire in their bellies" that propelled an earlier generation. But maybe that is because they don't want to become inside players more interested in knocking others off ballots, securing their own positions and promoting the candidacies of family members than in addressing most broadly — and sometimes not so politely — the needs of the people of their districts. The ghetto monarchs, Powell says, "may have had good intentions in the very beginning, but somewhere along the line they lost their way." He adds: "We need 21st-century solutions to the many challenges facing our people. You can't just get up there and think that you can take people to casinos, give them turkeys at Thanksgiving and maybe send them a Christmas card."
In Brooklyn, competition and compromise have resembled Chicago more than Atlanta. They have long revolved around deal-making involving blacks against blacks (often, for lack of a better distinction, African Americans versus Caribbean Americans), blacks against Jews (especially the Hasidic sects) and blacks against Italians. The outcome of these battles has usually been much more personal power than people power. And that's where human loud speakers like Charles Barron, the late Sonny Carson and Sharpton have come in. Since the late 1960s, three major protest movements — none of them led by traditional political leadership — have shaped Brooklyn politics and had an impact on who is heard from, whether by formally standing for office or wielding influence from the streets. These were the 1960s and '70s battles for community control of public schools (still a subject of interest), the 1989 murder of a black teenager in Italian Bensonhurst and a violent clash in 1991 between blacks and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights that left a black child and a Jewish scholar dead.
Of course, political power or influence is not solely exerted from the club houses or the streets. Barbershops and beauty parlors still hold sway. But no politician or wannabe would pass up an opportunity to address church associations or organizations like the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which draws from the entrepreneurial class. According to Roy Hastick Sr., president of the chamber, his organization has provided "advice and counsel" to elected officials throughout its 25-year history. Another non-politics "political" organization is the West Indian Day Carnival Association, whose parade each Labor Day draws about 2 million people — including political figures seeking to curry favors, especially among the professional associations whose members march, sponsor floats and, when election days roll around, vote. Jones sees the organization as having "an enormous latent political power."
Even if Barron's observation is true that many of the younger crop of politicians don't have the fire in the belly of the older generations, a lot of them do come with name recognition. In the state legislature, for instance, there is Towns' son, Darryl, and Barron's wife, Inez. In the U.S. House of Representatives, there is Yvette Clarke, daughter of former city council member, Una. And challenging the Brooklyn political machine by seeking a position as a district leader is Rep. Major Owens' son, Chris.
Thompson faces many obstacles, not the least of which is Bloomberg, who just may seek a fourth term and again spend from his own pockets like a drunken sailor. But between now and 2013, other candidates may also emerge with the blessings of Bloomberg and other high rollers. Those who did not support him in 2009, including black elected officials, labor leaders and big-name ministers like Floyd Flake, Calvin Butts and Brooklyn-based A.R. Bernard, might come around if the tea leaves line up right. But observers of the scene say that most of all, while making his money as an investment banker, he has to come up with a compelling message, focusing on issues that prospective voters care about and that make him relevant. And he has to be visible. "You have to be vocal. You have to take leadership," says Barron. "If he does, Billy Thompson will be the second black mayor of New York City."
And Barron, in the meantime, hopes to become the second black governor of the state of New York. He has formed the Freedom Party, channeling the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer who was "sick and tired of being sick and tired" when she formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi in 1964.
As he looks ahead, David R. Jones, a lifelong Brooklynite, sees two things about which to be optimistic. First, there is a newer breed of people entering politics, many of them women.
Second, there is a resurgence of a black middle class interested in improving their lives and thus those of their neighbors. "This includes a reversal of out-migration and expansion of the entrepreneurial class," Jones said. These newcomers have the ability not only to raise money for candidates and causes but also to re-invigorate community institutions and to hold accountable officials who they summon to appear before them. After all, they vote.
As all this goes on, Sharpton, who no longer lives in Brooklyn, sees a natural system of checks and balances. I see that, and chaos, too. But I also see a potential return to the spirit of Weeksville, led by independent people with political, social and entrepreneurial vision that transcends the tribalism — or ghetto monarchies — that prevail now.
E.R. Shipp won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996.