The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the African American community are still reeling from the defeat of Earl Hilliard in Alabama’s 7th congressional district. The five-term incumbent went down in flames at the hands of another Black candidate that was heavily backed politically and financially by the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The outcome has enraged many Black politicians, who view AIPAC as an alien political force, which has undermined years of Black voting rights struggles in the mainly rural district. “They are turning the clock back to a time when people outside of the African American community chose our leaders,” asserted Walter Fauntroy, former District of Columbia delegate.
McKinney now faces a tough battle to retain her seat in the August 20th primary. Therefore, analyzing Hilliard’s defeat in Alabama constitutes more than an academic exercise because there are lessons to be culled from this experience that may very well be applied to McKinney and result in a different outcome for the Georgia contest.
The sworn enemy of these two politicians is the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group. When Hilliard began to speak out on international affairs, and took a position that called upon Israel to end the occupation, he became the target of the powerful Zionist lobby in the U.S.
Specifically, Hilliard outraged AIPAC when he opposed the House resolution that literally gave carte blanche to Sharon’s policies in the West Bank. According to the Wall Street Journal, AIPAC funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars toward Hilliard’s black opponent – 75% of which came from the east coast where AIPAC organized numerous fundraisers for the other candidate.
As a result of all this money flowing into the Alabama Black Belt, Hilliard faced a tough primary battle in which he barely edged out Autur Davis, his Black opponent who had let it be known that he fully supports the pro Israeli views of the Zionist lobby and current U.S. Mid East policy. In the runoff primary, Davis ousted the 5-term incumbent with a boost from the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had been offered by Jewish donors mostly throughout the northeast.
The focus of the Israeli lobbyists within the U.S. on the Black community has long been noted. There has been a quid pro quo that support within the U.S. for Black concerns from the organized Jewish community is predicated upon blind support for U.S. political, financial and military assistance to Israel among Black politicians. And this concentrated focus does not stop at the electoral arena.
The pro-Israeli lobby in the U.S. has also been vociferous in its efforts to line up mainstream civil rights groups or their representatives to accept without criticism all Israeli policies. And this has been quite successful, even when these policies constitute horrific acts of violence in defiance of UN resolutions condemning Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
It was shameful to see, for example, NAACP Board Member Julian Bond’s name on a full-page N.Y. Times ad condemning the Palestinian response last year to Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to a Palestinian holy site, Temple Mount, and total silence on the slaughter of Palestinian men, women and children that has since ensued.
In many aspects, Hilliard’s primary battle was a concrete expression of a schism that exists within Black America on U.S. policy toward the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. On one side stood Artur Davis, prepared to accommodate himself to the demands of pro-Israel pressures and monies; on the other side stood Hilliard, who partly based his views on the understanding that significant segments within Black America identify with the colonial status of the Palestinians and see Israel as a regional superpower perpetuating violence against the Palestinians by its illegal occupation of West Bank and Gaza.
In the face of Hilliard’s defeat, one cannot help but be alarmed that a loud message is being sent to other Black politicians that their success or failure at the polls may very well depend not on how well they represent the interests of their mainly Black, mainly rural districts, but on how they view Israel. The years of struggle to attain Black voting rights is threatened by these developments.
Clearly, one cannot minimize the reactionary role that AIPAC played in Hilliard’s downfall, not the least being the racist manipulation of a U.S. democracy that invites elections to be sold to the highest bidder. Yet, it would be a mistake to leave the critique at this level. Otherwise, one accepts the view that inevitably Black politicians must pass the litmus test on unquestioning support for Israeli policies or go down to defeat like Earl Hilliard.
Despite progressive positions and courageous votes on the Middle East, which earned him the enmity of AIPAC and other Jewish groups, two other factors contributed to Hilliard’s loss. Earlier in the year, the House Ethics Committee had reprimanded him for irregularities in the handling of campaign funds, which left the stench of corruption in its wake. The second factor that served to weaken his position was one in which he went along.
When the Seventh Congressional District was redrawn after the 2000 census, several of the Black Belt counties that provided much of his base were redrawn and rural counties with higher white populations were added, leaving him vulnerable for the 2003 loss.
When one adds the national pro-Israeli support of his opponent to the mix, one might come to the conclusion that his defeat was inevitable, and in fact many Black politicians and other commentators have asserted this view.
My assessment runs counter to this perspective. In fact, a look at Earl Hilliard’s background strongly suggests that he played a big part in his own defeat – not because he took a balanced position on U.S. policy in the Middle East, but because he forgot or ignored his own roots, and particularly his own political genesis.
Hilliard came into office in 1992 as the first Black since Reconstruction to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Black Belt. That initial victory was tied to his link to the Alabama New South Coalition (ANSC).
The ANSC emerged in 1986 as a response to the consistent sell out politics of Alabama’s African American Democratic Party hacks “to serve as a vehicle to facilitate the social, economic and political development of progressive forces in Alabama.” It went door-to-door, it registered and reregistered people to vote, it participated in get-out-the-vote campaigns and it began to record victories.
First, it sent Hank Sanders to the Alabama Senate to represent the Alabama Black Belt, the first African American since Reconstruction to achieve this victory. The ANSC then fought off a spurious voter fraud witch-hunt by the FBI against voting rights activists. It delivered the state of Alabama to Jesse Jackson during his presidential bids.
In the final analysis, mobilization of the mostly impoverished Black Belt residents provided the political and organizational muscle to defeat the moneyed classes and the powerful Dixiecrat forces as well as collaborationist Blacks that coalesced in a vain attempt to defeat this insurgent grassroots movement.
After this fight for democratic representation, however, Hilliard apparently fell victim to the politics-as-usual mode of his Democratic Party colleagues on Capitol Hill. One of the big criticisms of the CBC is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “didn’t do enough” to help Rep. Hilliard fend off the challenge from his opponent. In other words, Hilliard had become a party player and expected as well as depended upon the money due him because of his incumbency rather than reliance upon an ability to mobilize his constituency.
Perhaps Hilliard and other CBC members need to take another look at the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, founded by Black activists in 1999 as part of a national grassroots movement that connects the history of earlier civil rights struggles to the ongoing struggle for campaign finance reform. The Project is named after the Black female sharecropper whose televised testimony challenging the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation electrified the nation at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention. Hilliard’s defeat is a grim reminder that most campaign monies, even in heavily Black districts, are provided by whites since they have much larger disposable resources than African Americans. Less disposable money results in fewer and smaller political contributions from Black America. Hilliard’s fate is also a vivid illustration that the privately financed system for elective office operates on behalf of incumbents only so long as they do not take positions that challenge the party line, in this case on Israeli-Palestinian policy.
At the end of the day, Earl Hilliard’s trouncing shows how precarious the cozy financial relationship with the Dems can be. Surely, without taking big money out of the campaign picture, the current system will continue to lend itself to reducing the ballot choices in majority-Black districts to those politicos who provide a comfort zone for the white elite, or to groups like AIPAC that open their pocketbooks to Black stooges. In the meantime, only an organized and mobilized constituency and a grassroots fundraising base can present a viable defense against the big money boys.
Frances M. Beal is a political columnist for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper and national secretary of the Black Radical Congress. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org