The last African American to run for senate in South Carolina did so in 1866. A hundred and fifty years on, and Alvin Greene, a 32-year-old US army veteran, has a chance to make it on to Capitol Hill as only the fifth black Senator since Reconstruction (three of the previous four African-American senators were elected in one state, Illinois).
Greene, a certified unknown until his defeat of Vic Rawl in the South Carolina Democratic primary last month, represents a long-overdue return to political power for black Americans in the South.
Along with his fellow black Southerners Representative Kendrick Meek of Florida and the Georgia labor commissioner, Mike Thurmond, Greene will run for the Democratic Party in the upcoming senatorial elections.
Back in the 1860s, all black candidates and officials were firmly tied to the GOP — unfathomable to 21st-century minds. The Republican Party of the Reconstruction era constituted both marginalised poor white voters and a politically vocal and energetic body of African Americans.
The shift of African-American political alliances from Republican to Democrat was confirmed in 1965, as Lyndon B Johnson’s Democratic government overturned black disenfranchisement with the Voting Rights Act. It is easy to understand, therefore, how and why African Americans did not manage to feature in a single Senate race in the Southern states before 1965.
The question that Greene’s Democratic primary success brings into focus is why on earth the South, and South Carolina in particular, has had to wait almost 50 years for an African-American candidate on the Senate ballot since re-enfranchisement?
Wrongly, all the press coverage since Alvin Greene’s more-than-unlikely primary victory has focused on his inability: he is “ineloquent”, too “inexperienced”, too “stupid”. But those inside the media and out must take more time to celebrate the significance of Greene’s win last month.
He has admittedly shown a telling lack of eloquence and experience. Not much has been said, however, of his degree in politics from the well-respected University of South Carolina. He is no dummy.
Take as an example another political figure who has been fingered for lack of eloquence and intellectual power, Sarah Palin. Palin has a colourful résumé. In the space of five years she attended Hawaii Pacific University, North Idaho College, the University of Idaho and Matanuska-Susitna College in Alaska, before finally returning to the University of Idaho. She studied communications.
The serious point to be made from this comparison is that spontaneity, inexperience and a previous life far from the political realm can all be advantageous factors in the modern wave of American politics.
Greene may not win; indeed, he probably will not win. But if a young veteran who was facing felony obscenity charges stemming from arrest in 2009 (for allegedly showing a pornographic picture to an 18-year-old female fellow student) is the man to adorn the South Carolina Senate ballot, then so be it.
Charges that Greene is a Republican plant don’t hold sway. What he is, it is safe to say, is an ill-prepared black candidate in a state fully prepared for an African-American senator. That is what should be grabbing the headlines.
If he fails, then one hopes that more able black Southern candidates will take up the baton and mount a charge on Capitol Hill. Barack Obama’s success has spread immeasurable possibility and hope around the Southern states. Perhaps Meek or Thrumond, if not Greene, can also bring African-American hope and possibility to the capital and beyond.