Color Bind

Who says the mayor is a racist? You'll be surprised by the answer.

The IMA is significant in the civil rights history of the city primarily for its staunch opposition during the 1960s and '70s to the civil rights movement in general and to the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in particular. Throughout those years the IMA was the backbone of the old separatist/accommodationist leadership in Dallas.

Twenty years ago I sat in a meeting downtown where members of the IMA told white powerbrokers, and I quote, "You owe us, because we kept the civil rights down in Dallas." Then as before, the main role of the IMA was to receive cash payments from the white leadership downtown as racial tribute in exchange for suppressing activism. In the long verdict of history, I believe those payments will be deemed Judas money.

After more than a decade of silence and under Nash's recent leadership, the IMA has attempted in the past year to make fresh forays into political involvement. But it's hard for me to understand, based on what I've seen of those forays, how the IMA has earned credibility as any kind of civil rights group. For example, on my desk is a letter Nash sent IMA members two weeks before the November 2002 Senate race in which Kirk ultimately lost his bid to become the state's first black senator. (I attempted to reach Nash to discuss this and other matters, but he did not call me back.)

At a September 15 hearing on Terrell Bolton's firing, the ex-police chief's supporters called Mayor Laura Miller a racist. They've called her worse in the past.
Peter Calvin
At a September 15 hearing on Terrell Bolton's firing, the ex-police chief's supporters called Mayor Laura Miller a racist. They've called her worse in the past.
City Councilman Leo Chaney may not trust Miller, but he won't call her a racist.
Peter Calvin
City Councilman Leo Chaney may not trust Miller, but he won't call her a racist.

In the letter, Nash urged member clergy to tell their parishioners not to vote for Kirk because the Kirk campaign, according to the letter, had declined to pay the IMA for its support: "In years past the political operatives have gotten paid major dollars to deliver the black vote...They want and need our people, and they want us to encourage our congregations to support them at the polls, but without providing adequate compensation to make this happen...The campaign is theirs, not ours!...We will not allow [gubernatorial candidate Tony] Sanchez or Kirk or their representatives to come into our churches to campaign."

That's not any kind of language of modern political empowerment that I recognize. It sounds to me like the old language of sell-'em-down-the-river tribute. The pent-up frustration there isn't because Kirk lost his bid for the Senate; it's because before he lost he didn't pay.

But wait. What about Nash's charge that Miller's personal politics have exacerbated the division between mainly white North Dallas and mainly black and Latino Southern Dallas? I spent some time fingering back through ballot tallies in Miller's May 3, 2003, election victory, in which she beat her principal opponent by 16.4 percentage points.

Nash's point seems to be strongly supported by the pattern of Miller's support--very big in white North Dallas, small to nothing at all in the south. And therein the conundrum: Why was a white liberal Democrat trounced in black Southern Dallas by Mary Poss, the wife of a Ross Perot Republican with no personal track record among minorities and, dare we say, a less-than-expansive personal cultural style?

A couple of aspects of that vote tally are interesting. In that election, 101 voting precincts were more than 50 percent African-American, according to the 2002 census. In those, Poss beat Miller 3 to 1. But that means Poss drew ballots from 6 percent of the over-18 population, while Miller got 2 percent. So they were fighting for the fragment of the fragment that came to the polls.

Poss' support was centered on the very poorest and oldest of the city's black precincts in the center of old South Dallas, where voters traditionally have been responsive to exactly the kind of paid political machinery of which Nash wanted a cut.

Miller did win a tiny handful of black-majority precincts in the more far-flung and affluent black areas. In Precinct 3348, at the center of the area where Poss dominated, more than 41 percent of the households had incomes of less than $10,000 a year. In Precinct 3527 in Southwest Dallas, a black precinct that went for Miller, more than 51 percent had incomes more than $50,000, and 18.5 percent had incomes of more than $75,000.

So what is that about? Is it class? Or is the question more of political independence--voters who actually know the issues and don't vote just because their preacher got paid to tell them to.

I walked the area of Poss' strong support last week, mainly in city council District 7 around Fair Park. I found lots of people on both sides of the Miller-racist question. Derrick Walker, 37, a truck driver, told me, "I believe she's racist." Juzarri Lockett, 22, said, "I don't look at her as racist." He said he thought Bolton had been a bad chief.

I stopped in at Earnestine's Beauty Shop on Metropolitan, a one-chair salon where I got two earfuls, one from Earnestine Tarrant, the operator/proprietor, who said, "I just don't like her. I don't like her ideas." The other earful was from Bertha Grant, who was in the chair having her hair shampooed. Grant, who has been deeply involved in community issues for years, said Miller is not a racist and is a better mayor for South Dallas than Kirk, the city's first black mayor.

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