Capable, Committed and Courageous, Black Elected Officials Serving the Citizens of California

S. E. Williams

Contributor

“Although the racial identification of given officials as “Black Americans” is important as a measure of the demographic representativeness of government, the ideological identification of Black officials (and non-Blacks, as well) with the strivings of Black people is essential for ideological representativeness. After all, what goes on inside an official’s head may do more than his or her outside appearance to determine how the duties and rights of office are actually carried out.”
James E. Conyers and Walter L. Wallace

California is home to the fifth largest population of African Americans in the nation, yet they represent only six percent of the state’s total population.

Despite being such a small slice of the state’s total demographics, Black Californians have, and continue to leverage to serve as elected representatives from the state house to the court house across the state.

In many instances these elected officials have persevered and successfully navigated a path to electoral victory by overcoming barriers that might have deterred other, less determined candidates.

For example, when Frederick Madison Roberts became California’s first elected representative in 1918 (he represented California’s 62nd Assembly District), the Republican who ran against him handed out cards that read, “My opponent is a nigger.”

Overtime, many Blacks striving for public office in California were not required to navigate such direct slurs, often “dog whistles” conveyed similar ideas that challenged some of them to seek higher ground during elections.

Regardless, capable Black candidates in the state continue to step up, build strong coalitions of support across demographics, successfully ascend to public office, and are working diligently and committedly on behalf of all constituents to build a better California.

Depending on the positions held by many elected Black officials whether they serve as members of the state senate or assembly, as a city fire or police chief. city council members, treasurers or clerks, etc. the challenges they face are often bifurcated—they prioritize, as they are elected to do, the needs of their constituents and yet, there is always the implied hopes and specific concerns they also shoulder as a member of the African American community.

In recognition of the dual responsibilities of these officials, two organizations were formed to assist with the challenges this represents.

In 1967, African-American members of the state legislature formed the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC).

The CLBC has its roots in the trailblazing efforts of Roberts who in the early 1920’s, in addition to focusing on the state’s traditional legislative issues, advocated for legislation aimed at eliminating laws and policies that restricted Black Californians from exercising their civil, social and political rights.

In a parallel effort, the African American Caucus was established in 1998, to promote diversity in the League of California Cities and the State Legislature. Since its formation, the League’s African America Caucus has worked to accomplish this through the development of conferences, discussions, seminars and conventions on topics that are vitally important to the African American community.

The epic journey of capable, committed and courageous African Americans regardless of party affiliation, who continue to step forward and carry the mantle of leadership at all levels of government should be recognized for their service, honored for their sacrifice and commended for their commitment.
Although the election of Black Californians, whether to federal, state or local office, has progressed in fits and starts over the years, Black candidates continue to step forward to challenge the status quo, and in the process are breaking through barriers, challenging opponents and earning a seat at the table. Like their peers, most have and are serving with distinction—charting a path for others to follow.

Frederick Madison Roberts left an enduring legacy. He once stated, “The leadership belongs not to the loudest, not to those who beat the drums or blow the trumpets, but to those who day in and day out, in all seasons, work for the practical realization of a better world—those who have the stamina to persist and remain dedicated.” California’s Black elected officials are committed to carrying on this tradition.