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Status: Complete

Black Progress? Politics

Black Progress:
Political Participation

By Thomas E. Cavanagh
and Denise Stockton

The 1960s witnessed the most dramatic political progress by
the black community in American history. The passage of the
Voting Rights Act eliminated most of the legal barriers to black
political participation in the South, bringing to a close the era of
poll taxes, literacy tests, and other vestiges of Jim Crow. At the
same time, sweeping demographic changes facilitated the emer-
gence of black political power in northern urban areas. By the end
of the decade, black mayors and congressmen had become visible
symbols of the capacity of the American political system to respond
to minority aspirations at the polls.
The gains of recent years have been widespread. Between
1965 and 1982, the number of black elected officials increased
tenfold, from about 500 to more than 5,100. During the seventies,
the number of black elected officials increased sharply at every
level of government: federal, state, and local (see Table 1). Blacks
have now been elected to every major category of public office
except the presidency, vice presidency, and governorship -- and
Californians came close to make Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley
the nation's first elected black governor in November 1982.
In general, the most striking gains have come at lower levels
of government. The category showing the largest single increase
has been black county officials, whose numbers have grown by
405.4 percent since 1970 (Table 1). Other important strides have
been registered in the numbers of municipal officials (up by 293.4
percent) and education officials (249.7 percent). More modest
growth rates have been recorded for black judicial officials (up by
164.3 percent), state officials (98.8 percent), and members of
Congress (80.0 percent).
Impressive as these gains are, however, they appear small
when viewed from the perspective of the American political system
as a whole. The 5,160 black elected officials identified in 1982
constitute only about 1 percent of all elected officials in the United
States. Or, to put it another way, "For every 100,000 nonblacks,
there are 224 nonblack officials. For every 100,000 black
Americans, there are only 19 elected officials" (Williams,
1982:76-78). Furthermore, the annual rate of increase for black
elected officials dropped from 26.6 percent in 1971 to 2.4 percent
in 1982. The most dramatic period of expansion occurred between
1964 and 1972 (O'Loughlin, 1979), when "blacks rapidly filled
elective offices in jurisdictions with substantial black populations,
thereby creating an artificial annual rate of increase" (Williams,
1982:75). While the 1960s clearly represented a watershed in the
political progress of black Americans, the 1970s can best be
characterized as a period of consolidation.
In a pioneering study conducted in 1971, Conyers and
Wallace (1976) collected a variety of data on the personal and
political characteristics of black elected officials. The present
report expands on that study, examining changes in the character-
istics of black elected officials between 1971 and 1980. The report
is organized around six principal questions:


1. What are the personal characteristics of the nation's
black elected officials?
2. How are they distributed among regions and types of
3. What are their political affiliations?
4. Were they elected in partisan or nonpartisan elections?
5. What is the racial composition of their electoral juris-
6. How are their political prospects affected by different
systems of representation?


Thomas E. Canagh is a research associate at the Joint
Center for Political Studies. Denise Goins-Stockton is
special assistant to the director of research at the Joint
Center and project manager for the National Roster of
Black Elected Officials.

Ivy Leaf -- Winter 1983/84 29

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