Since King’s “Dream” speech, where are black representatives in the House?

Martin Luther King l Photo credit: Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.  "No copyright restriction known. Staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift.

Martin Luther King l Photo credit: Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. No copyright restriction known. Staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift.

On this day commemorating the work of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s worth looking at one political metric — representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

According to Eric Ostermeir, in the 51 years since the “I have a dream” speech, 26 states have elected black people to Congress.

Thus 24 (including Maine), have not elected a single black person to Congress.

Many but not all of those states have low percentages of black citizens. Here’s that list:

● Five states in the Midwest: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota
● Six in the Northeast: Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
● Three in the South: Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia
● Ten states in the West: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.

However, the link between black population and electing black people does not hold in all cases.

According to 2010 Census data, Delaware has the 9th highest percentage of black citizens and Arkansas has 12th highest, but neither have ever elected a black person to the House. Utah, which is 43rd in percentage black, just elected its first black House Member.

In what states did black people win the most elections?

Maryland has the top percentage, with black people winning 17.4% of House elections. Then come Georgia, Missouri, a tie between Mississippi and Illinois tied, followed by Michigan, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and California.

Not only is Illinois tied for 4th but “Illinois has also elected the largest number of different black U.S. Representatives during this span with 13 – more than California (12), New York (10), and Texas (eight).”

And what about political party?

The partisan weight is overwhelming.

In the 51 years since King gave his most well-known speech, “Democrats have won 703 of the 716 U.S. House elections won by blacks across the last 51+ years, or 98.2 percent of such contests.”

While black Americans used to identify more with Republicans, the party of Lincoln, these identities shifted most strongly with the Civil Rights Movement.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy intervened to get King released from jail and called Coretta Scott King. King’s father, who had supported Nixon, then said:

I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my President, Catholic or whatever he is. It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this. He has the moral courage to stand up for what he know is right. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.

President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, proposed and passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965.

Then Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon embarked on the Southern strategy, described and predicted in The Emerging Republican Majority, which entailed appealing to white, conservative southern voters who were not pleased with the civil rights focus of the national Democratic party.

These two steps set in place a dynamic which tightly tied black voters to the Democratic and southern white voters to the Republican party.

Will this partisan trend continue? That depends on the parties’ messages, although in the short-term, party images can be very hard to change.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.