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The black vote - playing a bigger role in elections across South

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1984

Birmingham, Ala.

Early farmers in this region found the soil infertile. But in the 1840s an English geologist noted that there were limestone, coal, and iron deposits here that might one day make this an industrial center.

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He was right. In time, Birmingham became a steel town, more akin to the smokestack cities of the Northeast than to many of its Southern sisters. The city's early white leaders often addressed one another as ''colonel'' and ''regarded the mayor's office as their private domain,'' historian Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton notes.

Today, steel, which until recently was the No. 1 source of jobs here, has been replaced by the University of Alabama, with its large medical faculty and hospital complex. And the man in the mayor's chair is black, elected almost entirely by other blacks.

In fact, Birmingham and Alabama in general offer some insights on the extent of the growing black political clout in the South and in other parts of the nation today. That clout is having a major effect on this year's presidential campaign.

Blacks now account for nearly 30 percent of the registered voters in Alabama. But only two candidates - Democrats Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale - are likely to get much of the black vote. They are both working hard to get as much of it as they can.

The quest for black votes is still a relatively new phenomenon in the South, although the focus on blacks is not. In his classic book, ''Southern Politics,'' published in 1949, V. O. Key Jr. wrote: ''In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro.'' But the whole South was not preoccupied with controlling blacks; it was primarily whites in counties with the highest black population who were most concerned with that control, he notes. These counties became known as the ''black belt'' areas, though the name had originally stemmed from the rich black soil.

''What V. O. Key talked about was true,'' says Joe Reed, whom many describe as the most politically powerful black in the state. But those days are over, he says. Today there are two black state senators from the heart of Alabama's black belt, for example.

And statewide, white candidates have been forced to recognize the increasing black clout on election day, he says. Mr. Reed heads the Alabama Democratic Conference, is the No. 2 man in the state's powerful educational lobby organization, and is vice-chairman of the state Democratic Party. The ADC endorses candidates - blacks or else whites sympathetic to black interests, he says. The ADC endorsed Mr. Mondale over Mr. Jackson, Reed says, because Mondale has a more ''realistic'' chance of beating President Reagan.

Although the ADC supported George C. Wallace in his successful bid to regain the governor's chair in 1982, it did so only after supporting another candidate in the primary. Today, Reed gives Mr. Wallace a ''passing mark,'' but adds that he is ''not satisfied'' with Wallace's performance.

Many blacks in Alabama are rebelling against what some call Reed's dictatorial methods in the ADC. And black support for the Rev. Mr. Jackson is strong, despite the ADC support for Mondale. Lowndes County Sheriff John Hulet, a black, is urging that the ADC's screening process prior to endorsements be made more open and public.