Legendary Alabama Black Leader Talks Politics
MICHELE MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Now it's time for our wisdom watch. That's the part of the program where we talk to people who've made a difference through their work, people with wisdom to share. Today we talk politics. Politics in the South, which can, of course, have a significant impact on the politics of the country. We've called a gentleman from Alabama today, a man well known to Democrats and those who follow politics. He's become a kingmaker of sorts in his home state and a man sought after for his political wisdom well beyond Alabama's boundaries.
Joe Reed is the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the oldest black political organization in Alabama, and he's with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Mr. JOE REED (Chairman, Alabama Democratic Conference): Thanks for inviting me.
MARTIN: Now, I want to get your take on a number of contests that are shaping up around the country after the recent primaries, but I do want to start in Alabama. Congressman Artur Davis was hoping to become the first African-American governor of Alabama. Now, he's a young, attractive guy, well received by the congressional leadership, was kind of perceived as an up and comer. He endorsed Barack Obama early. Very badly beaten in the recent Democratic primary. Why was that?
Mr. REED: Well, there are probably several reasons, but one comes to mind is that he opposed Obama's health care plan. And that didn't go over well. In fact, a lot of people in Alabama just simply rejected that and outright. And that after he made the remarks, that if his vote was the deciding vote, that he still wouldn't vote for it. So I think that was one of the reasons.
Then more particularly, when he objected to comment before the black political organizations in Alabama, particularly the Alabama Democratic Conference. In the '70s, we had white candidates who would run for office, but would say that I'm not going to go before the black vote. I'm not going to seek the black vote. I'm not going to appeal for talk to their black leaders.
Well, we passed a rule in the '70s. It said that unless a candidate is willing to come before the voters through the black organizations, then they could not get endorsed. That's a standing procedure. So when Artur made that remark, people didn't like it and it was a big mistake because you were, in effect, rejecting your base. You were rejecting your people. You were rejecting the true Democrats in Alabama.
MARTIN: Now, you had a tough piece in the Montgomery Advertiser, where you talked about the ADC's decision not to endorse Artur Davis. But more broadly, over the course of the primary there was some well, testy exchanges, if you want to call it that between you two. Now, for 40 years - now, we can go into all that - but for 40 years, you've been working to get more African-Americans elected and pointed to public office. And I just wanted ask, was it personally painful for you not to be able to support this candidate?
Mr. REED: Well, it's not personally painful for me to oppose anyone who oppose black folks' positions and the interests of black folk. And in fact, I don't have any pain when I see a person going the wrong way and certainly not looking out for my - our interests. And I don't think that was only my position, that was the position shared by blacks all over Alabama. But that was basically unanimity among black leaders, that we didn't think Artur was the best person for our position.
Secondly, I never thought he could win, but we weren't driven by that. We were not driven by who could win and who could lose. We were thinking about the philosophy. And so my position didn't come down to whether he was black or white, as much as came to how he voted and how he expressed himself about our issues.
MARTIN: Mm hmm. I see your point. But, you know, you also supported Hillary Clinton, initially, over Barack Obama in the Democratic primary for president. And there are those who say, on the one hand it makes your point that you are interested in candidates and positions as opposed to race. On the other hand, there are those who say that this is an example of where the black political establishment isn't ready to move aside to let the younger generation move into positions of prominence. I know you've heard that before, so I am interested in your perspective on that.
Mr. REED: And that's a good point you raise. I dont think that anyone because they're young is necessarily due any deference. Any old person has got to move out the way so some young person come along and pick up where the old person was or older person. I tell my children that nobody's going to build a temple and make you high priest. If you want a temple, you build your temple. You go out and work, you prove your worth, you demonstrate that you are concerned about people, show that you love them and try your level best to help them. That's how you earn your place. That's how you earn your position. It's no question about it. I supported Hillary Clinton.
MARTIN: Because why? Because you thought she was the best candidate or you just thought Barack Obama wasnt ready or what?
Mr. REED: Well, I - I had met him a few times but no, I knew Hillary and I knew the president. And most black folk were for them initially because people were saying that, you know, Bill Clinton is the first black president. You know, they had that little nickname for him because Barack hadn't come along. There was nothing wrong with Barack. But the only reason for a person to leave Hillary, and that's okay, and to go to some other candidate was because she was white. We certainly didnt leave her because of her record. They had a good record on civil rights. They had a good record on black issues and black folk were embracing them night and day.
So of all crimes, the worst crime is ingratitude. That is, you never leave an old friend to make a new one. Make as many new friends as you can. But if your friends are bear with you, whether they're black or white, you stick with your friends. And when that day comes where you have to leave your friends it ought to be over something that your friends have done not over their race.
MARTIN: What about the argument though that Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and editorial writer wrote that you are part of quote, "an aging black political establishment that isn't ready to give up its outsized role in political affairs? I'm not sure whether that was meant as a criticism or not. But how do you interpret that?
Mr. REED: Oh, when I get ready to retire, I'm going home. And we have elections every two years in Alabama Democratic Conference. I always leave the room and say, when you folks find somebody you want to run the Alabama Democratic Conference it's fine with me. When I come back, they say, well, youve been elected Mr. Chairman again if you will serve.
So, I know Ms. Tucker. She's a very fine lady but I dont hold that everything is young is good and everything old is bad. The bottom line is is that we have to train. We have to expose. We have to help young people to get the experience they need to run an organization or to help run an organization. And I yield to no one. I've drawn re-apportionment plans for the state of Alabama. That's why Alabama has more black elected officials than any state in the nation.
MARTIN: And I want to ask you about that in a minute. But, if youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference. Again, it's the oldest black political organization in Alabama. Indeed, Joe Reed is considered one of the deans of - what would you say - black political organizing, black political empowerment efforts through elective office? I should mention the Alabama Democratic Conference turns 50 this year.
You mentioned that it was founded, as we said, 50 years ago, congratulations on that, by a group of citizens who were attempting to make sure that more African-Americans had a voice in elective office and which was no easy feat 50 years ago. But now that you do have the largest number of African-American elected and appointed office holders in the country in Alabama, you dont have state-wide office as Artur Davis was seeking, but do you still feel that theres a need for a group like yours?
Mr. REED: Oh, absolutely. Every candidate who ran for office came before the Alabama Democratic Conference and the convention. That's legislators, judges, state-wide officials. The only one who didnt come was Artur; everybody else came.
MARTIN: But why is there a need for a group like yours? I think some might argue that - yeah. Yeah.
Mr. REED: I'll tell you exactly why, in my opinion, is that first of all we are a minority. We have to vote together. We vote in a block. I believe in block voting. I've seen what it can do when people are united. Those who are opposed to it call it a block, I dont care what they it. But I call it the unity slate. We endorse black folk. We endorse white folk. We endorse, as Martin King called, the whites of goodwill. Yes. And we have made a difference. We have been able to defeat some bad folk in office and I'm proud of that. And no organization had worked to empower more folk than the Alabama Democratic Conference.
MARTIN: Some people worry that - I take your point about the power of the block vote. But there are some who argue that, number one, it allows candidates who are not part of the block to ignore your votes once they lose it and that that diminishes black political power. A lot of people make that argument about African-American generally voting, staying largely within the Democratic Party. They say, you know what, it makes it easy, if you can't win a coalition then you just become completely marginalized in the process. And people have looked at the fact that there hasnt been a state-wide office holder who is African-American in Alabama as evidence of that. What do you say to that?
Mr. REED: Well, I say that very few black office holders state-wide in any state. Weve have some in the past with judges. And I think its a crying shame that we dont have more black judges, more black elected officials state-wide. We got to keep fighting for that.
But fundamentally, a person who comes in second is never sworn in. And oftentimes, when an organization can pull people together, and were very proud of our organization because we're the only one in the country, we're the only one in the country that's got a network statewide where they all come together - youre taking about some unity - and make a decision.
MARTIN: Let me ask you about some of the other races around the country, if you dont mind, getting your perspective on this is. Weve been reporting on the fact, a lot of people have, of course, is the fact that there are some like 2,300 candidates for congressional and Senate office filed. That's the largest number that the FEC has, the Federal Election Commission, has recorded since theyve been keeping track of this. And one of the interesting phenomenons here is that the largest number of African-American Republicans that anybody can remember running.
And its just - and for example, like in South Carolina, nearby South Carolina, the South Carolina's only African-American lawmaker is going to face a son of former Senator Strom Thurmond in the runoff election there later this month. And I'm just curios about why you think that might be. And also on the Latino side, for example, a number of Latinos on the Republican side have won nominations. There's one in New Mexico. That's probably not unusual. Its an all-Latino ticket in New Mexico. And I'm just wondering why you think that is.
Mr. REED: I think Obama's election has done two or three things. One, I think he stimulated and gave hope to a lot of people, those who are not, who've been traditionally left out. But you have to count your votes. Go back to Alabama just a bit here. Obama didnt get but about 10 percent of the white vote in Alabama - about 10 percent. Now that didnt give any candidate black running for office a lot of hope. But Obama's election has given a lot of people hope and that's what it's all about. It's about empowerment.
People got a right to run. If blacks want to form a Republican organization, let them form one. But they should not be used. When the pie is cut black folk ought to get some of it in the Republican Party. So I dont have any problem with the blacks organizing with the Republicans if the Republicans respect them and deal with them and treat them like people. And I say the same thing to even Democrats in the state of Alabama. I've said to Democrats over and over again, my goal in politics is to be sure that the pie is cut right, to be sure that we can get people in office that can help our folk, people in office who will do good.
So I dont have a problem. The Latinos want to form a caucus, I say good luck in forming you one and negotiate something for your people. But otherwise, youre not going to get anything.
MARTIN: Do you think we will ever come to a time when race won't loom so large in politics?
Mr. REED: Not soon. Not in my lifetime and not in yours. I dont know how old you are. I'm 71.
MARTIN: Well, I'm a little younger than you, but.
Mr. REED: But not in my lifetime and I dont think in my little grandboy's lifetime.
MARTIN: Well, really? Because some people would look at Obama's election as evidence of the fact that it doesnt.
Mr. REED: And I promise you, progress we have made absolutely, yes. Progress we have made and I commend Obama. But Obama got to understand one thing and he can't really deal with this, a lot of these Tea Party crowd and these other folk who are forming group, these are folk who resent Obama. How the Republicans, for example have suddenly take the position, we want him to fail. We're going to do everything we can to trip him up. They have never said that about a white president before. We want this man to fail. And then once your president fails the country fails.
MARTIN: Well, I think they might make the argument that it's not him personally, it's his policies. That they just dont agree with him. And, of course, they should want him to fail.
Mr. REED: They see his policies as him. I know Tip O'Neil said all politics are local, but tell him Joe Reed said all politics is personal. This black man won over many of the objections and they are doing everything they can to frustrate him to be sure that he does not succeed. And I know deep down he knows that. Deep down he's not going to get out and say all of that. So it takes guys like me to tell that.
MARTIN: But if race was so important, how could he be president since blacks are less than 15 percent of the population? Surely, our new census hasnt come out yet, but blacks are less than 15 percent of the population of the country. So if race were that important how could he be president?
Mr. REED: And you know something? I am so glad that white America are turned to him and elected him. Lets give him a chance to serve. And I'll be the first to say, every movement weve ever had in the country weve always had white allies. So I'm not one. Our organization, we endorsed well, last month, we endorsed a white candidate over a black one. So if it been driven by race it would not have happened. It was not driven by race. So blacks have had and they continue to have and also seek out white allies. But we could never forget one fundamental question that we are still black. And just because John F. Kennedy got elected as a Catholic it doesnt mean that there are some folk who dont resent Catholics and the same thing about blacks. Just because - the civil rights era is not over just because Obama got elected.
MARTIN: Finally, before I let you go, I normally like to end our conversations this way, I'd like to ask if you were speaking to a younger you, do you have some wisdom that you would like to share?
Mr. REED: Yes. First, be honest. That's the most important thing about politics. You know, politics is clean. It's politricks(ph) that's dirty. And I would tell them further, if youre going to get in politics get in politics to help others, yourself, you cannot help. Sell your service but never your soul. Prepare, work hard, keep your word, let your word be your bond and your handshake be your contract. And be the first to see the sunrise and the last to see the moon.
You have to work to get what you want politically like you do in any other thing. And that's what I would say to any young group that I was talking to. That was some of the things I would say. I would probably say a lot more. Dont forget your friends. Dont forget your friends. Of all crimes the worst crime is ingratitude.
MARTIN: Joe Reed is the Chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Montgomery. Mr. Reed, thank you so much for speaking to us.
Mr. REED: And thank you for inviting me to share this program.
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