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The American history that explains the move in support towards Joe Biden

The funeral service for Cynthia Dianne Wesley, one of the African-American girls killed in the racist bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Bettmann Archive

BONNIE GREER explains why African-American women are backing Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump.

Former first lady Michelle Obama and I grew up a few miles away from each other on the South Side Of Chicago, one of the heartlands of African America.

The month that Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born, January, 1964, president Lyndon Baines Johnson, in his very first state of the union address (John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his predecessor, had been assassinated on live TV the previous November), announced ‘the war on poverty’.

I was a teen then and saw the speech on TV: a Texan, born in a racially-segregated society, a ‘Dixiecrat’ to his fingertips, had weaponised the entire federal government and declared war on poverty and on racism.

That same month, Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona, declared that he would run for president of the United States.

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Goldwater, who in later life moderated some of his views, was so extreme that psychiatrists began diagnosing him in public, questioning whether he was fit to be president. This caused controversy and led to the so-called Goldwater Rule being adopted by the American Psychiatric Association, This states that is it unethical for practitioners to give a professional opinion about public figures whom they have not examined and from whom they have not obtained permission to discuss their mental health.

The year before these events, 1963, is not only remembered in the African American consciousness for JFK’s assassination, but for what happened in Birmingham, Alabama, a few weeks earlier. There, four young, African American girls – aged 11 to 14 – were murdered when a church was bombed by racists. This was an episode so traumatising that those of us grown up enough to understand it at the time still cannot forget it.

Condoleezza Rice’s parents moved her and themselves out of Birmingham to on-the-other-side-of-the-moon Denver, Colorado, four years later. Don’t tell me that the death of those little girls had nothing to do with it.

At the start of 1963, the Democrat George Wallace became the governor of Alabama. His inaugural address is famous for the phrase ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’, which became a rallying cry for those opposed to integration. Throughout his time in office he defied the federal government again and again (he, too, repented later in life).

On this issue, he found an ally in Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There was even talk that Wallace would switch parties and become Goldwater’s running mate in the presidential race. This did not come to pass, but white southern Democrats embraced Goldwater all the same.

The Deep South – and that cauldron of the Civil War: Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina – made Goldwater their own. His candidacy meant that the dreaded Republican Party, which previously had been considered the political arm of the occupying North post-Civil War by southerners, was now seen as the South’s saviour. So the KKK became Republicans.

It is important to understand that the Republican Party in much of the South, is actually the old Dixiecrats – the southern Democrats.

At the same time, the passage of the Civil Rights Act caused many African Americans to not only join the Democrats, but to champion the party. Especially us women. Too many of our fathers, brothers, uncles, our mothers and us, too, had died at the hands of racism.

The people who do not know this history cannot begin to understand what happened to Joe Biden after, Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina congressman and the senior African American in the House, endorsed him shortly before the state’s primary at the end of February – a contest Biden won decisively, re-energising his campaign for the Democrat presidential nomination. What that endorsement showed is that African Americans remember the Year of Birmingham, 1963. It has never gone away.

Michelle Obama’s late father was a precinct captain for the Democrats – an elected role to link the party and the voters in a local election district. In my neighbourhood – home mainly to African Americans, with a large community of Latinos – the precinct captain brought food parcels at Christmas, looked after that clinic appointment that your mother needed, helped with the rent if need be. This is not to say that the former first lady’s father did any of this. But the term conjures up the image of a man, usually, knocking on your door to see how you were doing.

This was ‘the Machine’ in action, that formidable wing of the Democratic Party, based in Chicago, and run by Richard J. Daley and his Irish mafia. He had been mayor for so long that when I was a little kid I thought that ‘Mayor’ was his first name.

As a teenager, I fought back against this behemoth, this ‘Machine’, that hoovered up black votes. I fought as best I could. I fought the Democratic Party establishment, too. In the streets.

It was ‘Clean For Gene’, senator Eugene McCarthy, the Bernie Sanders of his day, who sought the Democratic nomination in the 1968 presidential election. The Dems were not going to play me, even if Bobby and Jack Kennedy had been murdered and they had helped black folks. I was young and not drinking that particular Kool-Aid.

By the way, Sanders – in his late 20s at the time – would have been for McCarthy, too. Because you were a jerk if you were young and were not. Just as you would have been worse than a jerk if you did not do what Sanders did as a student at the University of Chicago in the early ’60s, that great university on Michelle Obama’s doorstep. He opposed its expansion into the housing and neighbourhoods of the poor. An incursion that literally ousted African Americans, Latinos and working class white people.

Sanders was a leader in the fight against that. And all power to him. But it was also what you did at the time at the U of C if you were a white guy from New York City. To do otherwise, even if you wanted to, would have been worse than crass.

Older African Americans like me know this history. Because we lived it.

And the police brutality; the pain; the humiliation and the sheer number of deaths haunt us still. My generation has few heroes. A lot of them have been killed.

And we know a monster when we see one because we have lived with them. From our childhood on. And the latest monster is Donald John Trump of Queens, New York, the 45th president of the United States who has been running for that office since the day after his inauguration.

So to call us ‘establishment’, as Sanders and his followers do at times, is simply not to get it. To join, then un-join, then rejoin the party when you want to run for high office is to not get it.

This is also what it is necessary to get: that the backbone of the Democratic Party is me; my demographic: working class, lower middle class African American women over 40.

We don’t get much back for our support, but the alternative, to us, is worse. We are not romantics; our mothers were not romantics, either, and like them, we have seen it all before.

Bernie is a nice guy, in some ways a great one. But our goal is to defeat Donald Trump. And we’ll go with the guy he’s scared of: Joe Biden.

Now here we are with three old white guys, two of them born during FDR’s second term. I do not know how this happened.

Here are the facts: Biden is a mess, let us not mince words. On top of his back history; his gaffes; who actually knows if he can even stand up to all that will be coming at him. Joe talks about ‘record players’ as if he never left the 1980s. He is particularly emotionally vulnerable in relation to anything that has to do to with his son, who has been a focus of attack for the Republicans over his business dealings in Ukraine. But Biden brings together a coalition, and coalitions win elections.

Sanders, whose prospects for the nomination seem to be receding, has had a heart attack, one of nature’s big wake-up calls. If I was his wife, Jane, he would be on a golf course for the rest of his days, not in the streets campaigning, but she is clearly going with his decision, and respect to her.

And there is Trump. Besides everything else, just on the physical level, what’s going on with the orange skin, the white bags under the eyes, the stumbling over words? In short: who knows what will happen this presidential election cycle?

But what I do know is that this election is the most consequential of all the years that I have been alive. Ask Hervis Rogers, an African American Texas resident, who waited either six or seven hours – depending on which media report you read – to vote on Super Tuesday. Mr Rogers, who looks like no spring chicken to me, voted for Biden.

This is for real.

We will prop Joe Biden up as best we can as he gathers up everyone else who wants the shouting and screaming and sheer craziness to stop. ‘Dump Trump’ is the only real movement out there now. And we women, we older African American women, during this Women’s History Month, want you to know a bit of history. Ours.

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