Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with all civil rights organizations, have been in a tremendous quandary since the election of President Barack Obama: How do you oppose something advocated by the nation’s first black president and not get vilified by your own constituents?
Forget what any of these politicians or civil rights leaders say publicly. I know what they’ve said privately: When they say anything deemed remotely negative or in opposition to Obama, they are considered traitors to the black community and must walk in step with whatever he wants to do.
That’s why it was gutsy — and surprising — when Rep. John Lewis, and civil rights icons, Revs. Joseph Lowery and C.T. Vivian, held a news conference in Atlanta in December to blast President Obama’s selection of six nominees to the federal bench in Georgia and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The choices by Obama were made in deals cut with the four Republican senators from Georgia and Alabama, with no input from any Black Caucus members from those states.
The inclusion of Lewis, Lowery and Vivian in this fight was surprising to some — they have been ardent supporters of Obama, protecting his flank on numerous issues, even his support of same-sex marriage. Lowery, who previously made clear he was against the issue, changed after Obama said in 2012 he was now in favor of gay marriage.
But when it came to cutting a deal with Republican senators to put what they termed as conservative jurists on the federal bench for lifetime appointments, they said enough is enough.
What galls the Black Caucus, Lowery, Lewis and the others, is that African-Americans voted at unprecedented levels for Obama, with black women voting at a higher rate than any other group in 2008 and 2012. Critics in Georgia say they were offended that the lone black choice in the state was that of a Republican woman they’ve never heard of.
Their ire is also directed at Obama nominee Mark Cohen, who defended the Georgia voter ID law, an issue that has been ardently opposed by Black Caucus members and civil rights groups. They have also taken their aim at Judge Michael Boggs of the Georgia Court of Appeals for voting to keep the Confederate symbol on the Georgia state flag.
On Jan. 16, the CBC sent a letter to Obama expressing their displeasure with the appointments, especially in Alabama. Last week, four Black Caucus members met with Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett. White House officials have made clear they have no plans to pull the nominations, but Black Caucus members are still not satisfied, and are deciding what to do next.
It pains Black Caucus members and civil rights groups to publicly oppose the president, but that’s what they are supposed to do. Even though he is the first black president, that doesn’t mean you walk in lock step. The litmus test should be the same for a white Democratic or Republican president: If you think he’s wrong, then you stand on principle and not party.
The White House knows full well that Obama enjoys a virtual “he-can-do-no-wrong” status in the Black community. But in Jan. 2017, he will leave the White House for good. And these federal judges he appoints today, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will be around for the next 20 to 30 years. So whatever political deal the president has cut today is irrelevant.
I’ve been told by numerous sources that the White House is putting tremendous pressure on Lewis and Lowery to back off their public demands. Rep. David Scott of Georgia has been unrelenting in his attacks on the president’s nominees, but administration officials don’t see him as a threat.
But Lewis, Lowery and Vivian are different. They represent civil rights royalty; the former worked closely alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King while the latter two were his lieutenants. All three men marched, were arrested and shed blood for civil rights, voting rights and social justice. They have committed their lives to preventing such judges from wielding power. And when they speak, people on both sides of the aisle listen.
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Roland S. Martin is senior political analyst for TV One and author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as Originally Reported by Roland S. Martin.”