Dems Worry

Will African-American Voters Show Up for Barack Obama?

New restrictions aside, Democrats worry African Americans may not turn out for Obama. By Allison Samuels.

Michael Buckner / Getty Images

Just hours before the first African-American president was set to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Al Sharpton convened a group of black pastors, political leaders, and community activists to discuss the problem and the plan for 2012.

Identifying the problem isn’t the hard part, Sharpton says, as he points to massive efforts to discourage and prevent people of color from voting.

The plan to solve that problem isn’t quite so simple or so easy to explain. But those in the room for the National Action Network’s Ministers Luncheon all agreed that it begins with making certain African Americans realize exactly what President Barack Obama has done to aid the minority community.

Sharpton repeatedly told attendees—including senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, New York congresswoman Yvonne Clarke, Assistant Democratic Party Leader James Clyburn and top officials of the NAACP and National Black Caucus, among others—that African Americans have benefitted greatly under President Obama.

“Millions of black people now have insurance that didn’t before this president,” said Sharpton. “We have to understand what’s been done to help us and everyone else in this country by this president. Black leaders have access to this president. I know because I’ve been there from the beginning. I’ve been in those meetings.”

Sharpton then added a thinly veiled jab toward African-American critics of the president.

“Don’t believe those out there saying that we’re not in the room just because they aren’t in the room. He has black leaders in there and knows our problems. He’s the president of the United States and he is working for everyone, including us.”

But as African Americans continue to face high unemployment, record numbers of home foreclosures, and crippling cases of poverty, black leaders admit they’re worried that the 2008 passion and enthusiasm that helped bring out black voters in droves to vote for Obama might not be there this time around.

“It’s been tough for black folk and no one is arguing that point,” says Pastor John Lloyd of Dallas. “It’s hard to be excited about politics when you see the foolishness going on in DC and you can’t pay your rent. Our job is to let black people know that our president is trying to make things better. He needs more time and we have the responsibility to make sure he gets it.”

Rev. Lloyd says several black churches in Dallas have spent the last few months holding weekly meetings and informational seminars detailing the benefits of the president’s health-care plan as well as his other accomplishments over the last four years.

“We’re finding ways to get the most important points out to the people about what this president has done,” Lloyd says. “That’s been one of the biggest problems in my estimation—that black people just don’t know enough about what he’s done. We’re explaining how he fought to extend unemployment benefits, helped black farmers, and other things you never hear about. I see the light bulb go off when we go down the list.”

Most agreed on Thursday that lack of information and misrepresentation of the facts regarding the president’s record have led many African Americans to feel their best interests haven’t been served and won’t be over the next four years—no matter who sits in the White House.

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“I turn on the television and see them fighting President Obama on everything he tries to do. I just get depressed when I see it and turn it off,” said 37-year-old Simon Daniels of Charlotte. “I haven’t had a job in over a year and don’t see getting one soon. I don’t blame Obama, but I’m not sure my voting for him or anyone else is going to make a difference to me.”

Daniels’s lethargy about the election is exactly what scares black leaders the most. Many in the room Thursday said finding solutions continues to be an uphill battle that must be fixed soon.

“We have just 60 days to get people to where they need to be,” says Jerry David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “We need to get them to understand how supportive the president has been of labor workers and what that means. We have to be out there every day telling those type of stories to anyone who will listen.”

While regaining the same energy of the 2008 campaign is a major concern, the equally hot topic of the day focused on restrictive voting laws and how even more disenfranchised the black voter may soon become as the result of them.

“We’re being disenfranchised and demoralized by the actions being taken now in regards to voting,” says Clarke. “And that’s the plan to keep us home on Nov. 6th one way or another. Putting laws in that make us unable to vote. Then telling lies about our president make us feel like we have no reason to vote.”

Clyburn dismissed that notion by telling the story of a South Carolina couple who lost everything they owned by fighting to register to vote during the ‘50s. They moved to Florida to find work after losing their jobs, but returned to South Carolina shortly before Clyburn ran for office in 1992.

“I think about that couple every day,” says Clyburn. “They reached out to me when I first got into office and told me their story. I thought of them when President Obama won and I’m going to think about them on Election Day when it’s time to vote in November for Obama. I keep their pictures on the wall in my office so I won’t forget the sacrifice they made for all us. All of us have to remember that.”

Judge Greg Mathis, host the nationally syndicated court show Judge Mathis, says he’s registered thousands of formerly incarcerated Africans Americans who mistakenly believed they were ineligible to vote.

“Far too many young black men are in prison and far too many come out thinking they can’t vote so they don’t even try,” he says. “Some states won’t allow convicted felons to vote, but not all states. Many, many states don’t have that restriction. We have to reach out to them and get them registered so their voices are heard, too. We need them, particularly now.”

Lastly, Sharpton had harsh words for those African Americans who say they may not vote for President Obama this time around because he’s in favor of same-sex marriage.

“I tell those people to think about when they get to heaven and have to explain how you let health care for the poor and needy go away, better education go away, and women’s choice go away because two gay people you didn’t even know got married. How is that going to sound?”