NEW YORK -- Where Van Woods is today is where a lot more blacks may be by the year 2000; ready to vote for a Republican presidential ticket.
Five members of his family are still strongly Democratic, but two others have said they're seriously thinking about switching to Mr. Woods' party -- the party of Jack Kemp, the GOP's nominee for vice president.
"Jack Kemp is making it a lot easier for blacks to take a look at the Republican Party because of his long track record as being a moderate, because of his work as housing secretary and because of friendships he's established among African-Americans," said Mr. Woods, whose family owns Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem. "It's not the same kind of ticket that you had four years ago, with George Bush and the mean spirit that was out there."
Mr. Woods officially made the switch in 1993, but he'd been planning to do so since 1980. Jesse Jackson urged him to stick with Jimmy Carter in '80. Then in '84 and '88 Jackson was himself a candidate, so Mr. Woods stayed put. Then David Dinkins ran for mayor in '89 and Mr. Woods stayed put. But he was appalled by what he says was Mayor Dinkins' "disgraceful leadership" and blacks' blind loyalty regardless.
"We threw all of our energy behind something that was just symbolic. He was no Maynard Jackson and no Harold Washington," Mr. Woods said, referring to the black former mayors of Atlanta and Chicago, respectively.
In Washington a few days ago, Mr. Woods said, several black politicians attending the annual Congressional Black Caucus Weekend told him, "Keeping doing what you're doing, Van, because we've got to have options in our community."
From William McKinley's presidency through Herbert Hoover's -- a span of 36 years -- one Republican president after another abandoned blacks, kowtowing to the racism of Southerners who wanted, and eventually got, a "lily-white" party. Many prominent blacks, including W.E.B. Du Bois, bolted in 1912, choosing Woodrow Wilson over Theodore Roosevelt or William Howard Taft.
Writing in Crisis, the influential magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois argued that blacks should let the Democratic Party "prove once [and] for all if the Democratic Party dares to be Democratic when it comes to black men."
The 1912 election marked the first sizable desertion of the GOP by blacks, but Wilson was an utter disaster on the racial front. Blacks returned to the GOP fold in subsequent presidential elections until 1936, the re-election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The deck and the sea
Today, blacks are in a similar condition of disgust with the party to which they've been singularly loyal. In 1872, Frederick Douglass, a leading black Republican, said: "The Republican Party is the deck; all else is the sea." For years blacks have said much the same thing about the Democratic Party.
But it seems obvious to me now -- as it did to Du Bois and other black opinion shapers decades ago -- that blacks must take the plunge: declare their political independence, voting for their friends and punishing their enemies, regardless of party label.
Van Woods puts it this way: "You've got white men leading us, no matter which party wins. We've got to have half of us over here, half over there. That's the only way it's going to mean anything. Politics is business and a game, and we're just not playing it."
Blacks should take a page from Harlemites who during the 1920s began to make inroads into another party at local and state levels, ultimately gaining enough clout to become a vital part of party leaders' campaign strategies.
Bob Dole and Jack Kemp seem unlikely to win, but Van Woods is looking ahead. "What will happen sets Kemp up for four years from now."
If the Democrats are smart, they'll be looking ahead, too -- or experience the fate of Republicans in 1936.
E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News.
Pub Date: 9/24/96