In Philadelphia, two old warriors talk about how to play the political game
You need outsiders to shake things up and insiders to change the law
When the Kentucky delegation to the Democratic National Convention met for breakfast Monday, most of the politics was local and took the long view.
The temperature in Philadelphia was expected to reach 100 degrees. But Darryl T. Owens, 78, and Gerald Neal, 70, both Hillary Clinton delegates from Louisville, hail from a time when you never wanted to face the world too casually. Owens wore a sport coat and slacks. Neal, whose hair and beard are nearly white, wore a gray pin-striped suit with an open-collared shirt.
After the program, which featured U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-highest-ranking Democrat in House leadership, the two old friends – they’ve known each other for 40 years – lingered to have some friendly conversation about political activism, who’s to blame for the generational divide in black politics, and what can be done about it.
Owens, an attorney and a state representative since 2005, fought for school desegregation in the 1960s. Last year, after nearly a decade of trying, he passed a bill allowing certain felony offenders to have their records expunged. He is one of six African-Americans out of 100 state representatives.
Neal, an attorney, professor and Kentucky state senator, was arrested 11 times as a student during the civil rights movement. After becoming the second African-American senator in Kentucky history in 1989, he helped pass legislation to end racial profiling and advocated for the expansion of health coverage for low-income families. He is one of two blacks in the 38-member Senate.
They are veterans of both the outside game – manning the barricades – and the inside game – counting the votes. The current political climate features both opportunity and peril, said Owens.
“I think we’ve hit a wall,” when it comes to the political discourse, he said. Owens calls this election-year vitriol the worst he’s seen, which is telling, given the battles he’s been through.
As an attorney fighting to desegregate the University of Kentucky law school and Louisville public schools, he recalled having to tell his two daughters not to answer the phone. “Those folks who had a different view would call you and say unkind things to you. They’d threaten you. There were some N-words.” But the country was moving forward. “Attitudes were changing,” said Owens. That kind of hatred became unacceptable, at least in public. “But it’s coming back.”
For civil rights veterans, “not only did we think we were fighting the good fight, but that we were turning a corner,” Neal said. “But to reinforce what Darryl is talking about, we’ve seen a retrenchment” in some attitudes around race. Some whites are threatened by demographic changes and the browning of America, he said.
Neal, who teaches history and government at the University of Louisville, calls himself an eternal optimist. Young people don’t carry the same overt racial baggage he saw growing up. “Our fight [now] is the institutional and structural aspects of racism,” he said.
There’s a pronounced generational divide among blacks, the old friends agree. But they differ about the blame. Neal says one group – the older folks – aren’t doing nearly enough to reach out.
Owens, on the other hand, describes learning the levers of community, government and law from people like Georgia Powers, the first African-American and first woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. From people who did civil rights work before him. “In the olden days, if they had a meeting, everybody showed up,” Owens said. “We showed up and we marched. We had leaders who we trusted.” Now young people might get on “Google to see if [a cause] is something worth showing up for … there’s an unwillingness to learn,” Owens said. “They know everything.”
In talking to young people, there’s “almost no connectivity between what they are trying to assert and what came before them,” Neal said. “I see that as a weakness because they are not taking advantage of the wisdom and experience that comes out of struggle.”
But the failure in that is ours, Neal said. “We haven’t set the context for them to learn.”
He cites an “individualized disconnectivity” – everybody on their phones and computers – but says there’s still potential to come together. “What I’ve found and what I’m happy about – there are some very, very bright young people out there. And they are very aggressive. If we can engage them and have this kind of discussion, then I think we can recapture a kind of energy and connectivity. It’s not necessarily gone forever.”
Though the Black Lives Movement has been on the front lines of that generational divide – civil rights leader Andrew Young recently called some protesters “unlovable little brats” – both Kentucky lawmakers gave the movement high praise.
“Black lives do matter,” Owens said. He hasn’t had contact with the protesters, but he respects what they’re trying to do. He recalled having “the talk” with his daughters about interacting with police in the 1970s. There’s a long list of incidents with police where “there’s no consequences or meaningful response, and it frustrates you.”
The young protesters today remind Neal of himself and the young people he’d take over college buildings and go to jail with. “I love them because they assert themselves,” he said. He’s regularly reached out to millennials in Louisville, including some Black Lives Matter activists with whom he said he’s developed strong relationships. “They are uncompromising. They stumble the way we did. But they have an important role pushing issues that have laid dormant and people are timid about addressing.”
But in politics and protest, the men say, you need to play a couple of hands at once. “Here’s Black Lives Matter doing its thing. They’ll go to the table and talk,” said Neal, “but the concrete results from that, I don’t see. I don’t see the negotiations saying A-B-C-D-E is happening.”
Neal cited Owens’ leadership in getting the law passed to allow for expunging the records of nonviolent felony offenders in Kentucky – people who had shoplifted more than a certain amount or written bad checks, for example. That took time, patience and skillful legislative wrangling. “Who is going to be as experienced as a Darryl Owens in doing that work?” Neal asked.
For Owens, “the way forward is political.” “It’s to understand and appreciate the vote.” If younger generations understood what it took to get it, then maybe they’d engage more in the process.
For Neal, the responsibility for bringing about that understanding “falls squarely in our shop.”
As the conversation winds down, the two old friends, veterans of many a political war, push back from the breakfast table to head to the convention floor. Both of them, still in the fight.