It started with a phone call.
In the 1960 campaign, when Martin Luther King was jailed for protesting segregation, Jack Kennedy picked up the phone and reached out to Coretta Scott King.
Martin Luther King, Sr., a lifelong Republican (as many African Americans were at the time) was so touched by the Kennedys involvement that he threw his support to Kennedy. African Americans were also touched, and noticed the disrespect shown by the Republican, Richard Nixon. Historians largely credit that with moving enough African American votes to the Democratic column to propel Kennedy to a razor-thin victory in 1960. And, since then, African Americans have largely not returned to the GOP.
It's a story I recalled this morning when I saw Sunday's Rasmussen Poll that showed Hillary Clinton getting just 59 percent of the African American vote if she is the nominee in November. (By the way, McCain beats Clinton and Barack Obama equally among white voters, in the poll)
For a few days now, I've been examining the growing "African American problem" that the Clintons have, and what it could mean in November. It's somewhat uncomfortable, as a white guy, but no one else seemed to be doing it. The long and short of it is not surprising -- if African Americans don't turn out for Clinton, or vote against her, to any degree less than the last few presidential contests, she will lose. Almost every swing state depends on urban areas as bastions of Democratic turnout, if it's to turn blue. And, those urban areas are predominantly African American. So, it's pretty near impossible to win Michigan if Detroit doesn't turn out, or Ohio if Cleveland doesn't turn out, and so on.
When you listen to African American leaders like Rep. James Clyburn, the plummeting support for Senator Clinton in the African American community isn't surprising. Nor is it surprising when you read the absolute anger towards the Clintons growing every day on websites that focus on African American interests, like Jack and Jill Politics or TheRoot.com.
The longer this race continues, the more attitudes will begin to solidify, on all sides. And, should Senator Clinton secure the nomination as the result of a floor fight at the convention (which her campaign admits is her only path to the nomination), that will only further promote the perception that this nomination is being stolen from America's first African American candidate with a real shot. If it goes that far, to the convention, there is only two months to repair the breach. A daunting task, indeed.
Everyone I've discussed this with who is white basically says the same thing -- wounds will heal, African Americans will come back.
When Senator Ted Kennedy spoke at Coretta Scott King's funeral, he recalled 1960. The Los Angeles Times reported:
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) drew roars of approval when he invoked the 1960 phone call placed by his brother, then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, to Coretta King to pledge his help in freeing her husband from jail. Kennedy also mentioned the call placed by another brother, Robert F. Kennedy, JFK's campaign manager, to a local judge to inquire why Martin Luther King Jr. could not post bond. He was freed the next morning.
The sanctuary burst into applause when Sen. Kennedy said: "Robert called the judge."
Forty-five years and one Southern-Strategy later, an entire generation of African Americans has not forgotten which candidate of which party took the time to make a couple of phone calls, to the point where just recounting it caused two of the largest applause lines at a Memorial Service.
And, yet, the white pundits I've talked to maintain that in just months, African Americans will come back to the Clintons after the frontrunner, Barack Obama, was bloodied up by their "Bubba Strategy," pitting white working-class voters against African Americans?
Don't wait by the phone.