Obama Wants to Bring 'Change' to Kentucky

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Mon, 03/24/2008 - 12:47am.



Last week, Sen. Barack Obama made a nationally televised speech that put race at the center of American political discourse. That's not a place where Kentucky is entirely comfortable. This is the state, after all, that waited until 1976 to ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the laws that outlawed slavery and ensured blacks equal protection and the right to vote.

While certainly no trailblazer in women's rights, Kentucky did elect the third female governor in the country. But the state has never elected a black to statewide office. There are now six blacks in the state House of Representatives and one in the state Senate. According to a study by the Secretary of State, there are five black mayors and two black circuit court justices in the entire state.

"What's apparent is that, somehow, throughout the 20th century a message has been sent that African-Americans are not welcome to participate in the political process," said University of Kentucky historian and author Gerald Smith.

But now into Kentucky's 20th-century political scene comes the most cutting edge 21st-century presidential race anyone could imagine a black man and a white woman vying for the top spot. Some believe the race might just be generating enough excitement 'no matter who wins' to help lift Kentucky out of its somewhat hidebound political traditions.

Take Gerald Neal, in his long, lonely vigil as the only black state senator in Frankfort. He's a student and teacher of Kentucky's history and thus no Pollyanna when it comes to political and racial realities, but on the subject of the presidential race he now sounds positively giddy:

"I think Kentucky is poised for a breakthrough," says Neal, a Louisville Democrat. "My head tells me be cautious 'this is Kentucky' but my heart and the dynamics I see tells me there's a potential for breakthrough."

No matter who wins, Hillary Clinton, Obama or John McCain, Kentuckians can see a new model for elective politics that could change the state's mostly white male face.

"We have an opportunity as a whole society of people in Kentucky to take a qualitative leap into the 21st century along the lines of race and gender," Neal says.

A move beyond race

In his speech, Obama set out to do more than articulate the sources of black oppression and anger. In keeping with his discussions of a color-blind future, he spoke of the genuine base of white resentment toward racial matters. He urged a political movement beyond race, one that focuses on issues such as poverty, health care and education.

That argument should resonate with black and white Kentuckians, who suffer from many of the same needs, says Rev. Willis Polk, pastor of Imani Baptist Church in Lexington. He thinks that's why Rev. Jesse Jackson drew such crowds here during the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections. In 1988, Jackson came in third in the primary, after Al Gore and Michael Dukakis.

"He (Jackson) had the ability to speak and translate the problems of the poor, and that transcended race," Polk said.

Polk is not deterred by recent polls showing that McCain would beat out both Obama and Clinton in Kentucky, and Obama by a much larger margin.

"I think the traditional ways of surveying people, those are not reaching the people who vote for Obama," he said.

David Tandy, a black city council member in Louisville, agrees, saying he talks to plenty of people from rural communities who have issues in common with their more urban brethren. Obama is expected to do well in Louisville, particularly, which he has already visited several times. But Tandy confirms that black political role models are still rare.

"There's a long way to go in terms of having complete enfranchisement in the system," he said. "We're just 40 years removed from (the Rev. Martin Luther) King's assassination and the civil rights era. You're talking about making up for centuries worth of institutional and de facto segregation practices. But now you do have more people of color as well as women becoming engaged in the process."

Kentucky's political scene is complicated by its regional cultural identities, where Southern attitudes back into the Appalachian Mountains and run up against midwestern industrial cities on other borders. That makes it extremely hard to predict which way Kentucky will go in a presidential primary that will be the first to matter in a while.

Engaging the young

As secretary of state, Trey Grayson is basically in charge of Kentucky's elections, so he's spent some time thinking about who gets elected to what. (His office now issues annual reports on the status of blacks and women in elected office.)

He thinks Kentucky's political scene looks more traditional because it is still a poor state and politics is, let's face it, a vocation that takes both time and money.

Grayson, a Republican, pointed out that the state's most conservative area, far Western Kentucky, has the fewest women and minorities in elected office.

Still, he is particularly encouraged by the interest that young people are taking in the presidential primary.

"Seeing these candidates might be a spark to encourage African-Americans and women because they don't have a lot of role models among current office holders," he says.

But race is still a potent force. Kentucky is a former slave state. In 1840, one in every four people in the state was black, nearly all of them slaves, according to census figures at that time. By 1910, 20 percent of Kentucky was black; today it's 7 percent.

Because Kentucky did not suffer much of the violence present in other states during the civil rights movement, many Kentuckians believe that racial problems don't exist, says Smith.

"We don't want to be portrayed as racist; we're different from South Carolina and Mississippi," Smith said. "That's what makes it so complicated because (Kentuckians) didn't do that much to deny blacks the vote, they just sort of ignored or overlooked the whole issue."

In spite of his pessimism, Smith says he is encouraged by what he sees among young people at UK who are very engaged in the presidential race.

"There are a lot of places in Kentucky where there are no black people at all, so when these kids come to UK, it's the first time they've had a black teacher or a black classmate," he said. "Now you've got a black man running for president! But these students are more open-minded when it comes to accepting and even desiring change on the racial landscape. They're bored with what we've had."

Another UK historian, Tracy Campbell, says it's hard to measure how effective Obama's recent speech on race was among Americans or Kentuckians, especially when the speech was given at 11 a.m. on a weekday. "I think it will be measured by how many votes he gets," Campbell said.

Smith hopes that some Kentuckians listened till the end, when Obama recounted the story of a young white woman in South Carolina who worked on his campaign after her mother's cancer treatments bankrupted the family.

"Even Kentuckians could connect with that," he says, "if they opened themselves up to what he had to say. Those are the fears and frustrations, the hopes and dreams of all Americans within all the contexts of race and diversity."


The Kentucky House of Representatives has 13 female members and six black members. The Senate has five female members and one black member. There are no black women currently serving.


Lu-Ann Farrar -  News researcher - March 23, 2008 - posted at www.kentucky.com


 News researcher Lu-Ann Farrar contributed to this article. Reach Linda Blackford at (859) 231-1359.




Tag this page!
Submitted by SadInAmerica on Mon, 03/24/2008 - 12:47am.