African-American Congressmen in Michigan

Oct 31, 2011

For most of our history, Michigan had no African Americans representing the state in Congress. That changed in nineteen fifty- four, when a young funeral director named Charles Diggs beat an incumbent white congressman, which was a sensation at the time.

Ten years later, Michigan got a second black congressman, when John Conyers was first  elected. He took office in nineteen sixty-five. That same year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, partly in response to the death of a white woman from Detroit named Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered for helping civil rights demonstrators during the great march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Ever since the, our congressional delegation has included two African Americans. There were only five black congressmen in the nation when Conyers arrived; there are more than forty now.

That‘s progress, but still a smaller percentage than there are African Americans in the total population. The Voting Rights Act has been interpreted to mean that the legislature is obliged to draw two districts with black majorities, and they’ve done so.

They did so again this year. But times have changed and the population has become more diffuse, and it now seems entirely possible that when the next congress convenes a year from January, Michigan might have no black congressmen at all.

Here’s why. Thanks to the shrinking of Detroit and the dispersal of large numbers of blacks into Oakland County and elsewhere, it is now virtually impossible to draw districts that are nearly all black.

The new Thirteenth and Fourteenth districts are both only slightly more than fifty percent African-American. And in each case, vigorous primaries are shaping up that could easily result in white candidates winning the Democratic congressional nominations.

By the way, in these districts, winning the Democratic nomination almost assures any candidate of election. Republicans can no more win here than a Democrat can in Ottawa County.

In the Thirteenth District, John Conyers, eighty-three years old, is facing a vigorous challenge from Bert Johnson, a black state senator. But Shanelle Jackson, an African-American state representative, may jump in  also.

And there is yet another candidate -- State Senator Glenn Anderson of Westland, who happens to be white. In a hotly contested primary in which the black vote is divided two or three ways, a white candidate could easily end up winning.

The situation in the neighboring Fourteenth District is even more interesting. Michigan lost a seat in Congress, and here, two incumbent Democrats are battling to the death. Hansen Clarke, who is seen as black though he is half Asian, and Gary Peters, who is white. On paper, there are more black voters -- barely.

But white voters tend to have considerably higher turnout rates, especially in a primary. Peters is likely to have more campaign cash. And there’s another wrinkle: Brenda Lawrence, the mayor of Southfield, may get into the contest, which would further hurt Clarke.

So it is entirely possible that the state’s black delegation could vanish next year. The white candidates say the election should be about who can best represent the districts, and they are right.

You could also argue that now that there is a black president, the symbolic nature of black congressional representation isn’t quite as important. It will be interesting to see if the voters agree.