Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of February 9, 2006

Hey Joe: With the African-American population in the South steadily growing, why do you think this part of the country has morphed into a Republican stronghold? Is it apathy among black voters, Democratic Party shortcomings or a combination (or neither)?

John Lewis, Selma, Alabama

Imagine growing up black in Birmingham, Alabama, shortly after passage of the 1954 Voting Rights Act. At age 21 — the state's age for voting — you stand in line waiting your turn to register. It finally comes and you are faced by a white male registrar, harassment clearly written in his lined red face, who drawls, "Whut y'all afta, boy?" Before completion of the process, you've paid $3 poll tax for the current year, and if 25 or over you're penalized $3 for each year you fail to register at 21. In order to qualify, you're asked questions such as: "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" Your reading skills are tested to see if you can pass the Constitution, and if you can't you're flunked. All this after blacks had been beaten, degraded and faced death many times — anything and everything negative to discourage the potential black voter. But to blacks, the vote represented hope.

Decades before the Voting Rights Act, or at a time when law prohibited blacks from learning how to read, fraternize with whites, demanded they say "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am," Birmingham — like all other states south of the Mason-Dixon line — was a part of the Solid South, a subtitle given the Democratic Party, upholder of so-called slaves and slave owners. And then along came Abe Lincoln, a Republican, who destroyed such ideology. Until then, hope was blacks' sole ally.

Following Lincoln's breakdown of bondage, blacks graduated from country servant to politics. Subsequently, they became loyal to the Republican Party. Though in order for politics to be played, there has to be something to play politics with, and blacks fit the bill. Case in point: affirmative action, welfare and crime. A few decades later, the election of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt was a prime indication that the hope once held in the Republican Party was dashed. By the time this occurred, blacks had placed their hope in the church.

Roosevelt, after being elected, initiated programs for the poor, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — all consisting of jobs. Additionally, there was a domestic program called The Relief, now known as welfare, which included blacks. From then until presently, the Democratic Party has owned blacks. Thus, the once bad party turned good. And supposedly, the once good party turned bad.

The answer to your question can be found in the last two presidential elections. In spite of their heavy turnout when Al Gore won with a substantial popular vote, the election was given to George Bush by a law in force during bondage. Sadly, Bush's second election was won after he whipped game on a slew of ignorant black churchgoers by claiming to be a Christian man. The word "apathy" has no place in most intelligent blacks' vocabulary.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn?t know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman?s Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry?s most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they?d arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to [email protected]. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.