Southern black politicians are organizing to gain more clout within the Democratic Party. Some 300 of them took a big step in that direction when they met in New Orleans last month and established a 13-state Conference of Southern Black Democrats. The goal of this body, which has existed unofficially since 1984, is to turn blacks into an effective voting bloc on Super Tuesday, next March 8. That day some 20 states, including a dozen in the South, will hold primaries or caucuses. Many blacks hope it will be ``Jesse Jackson day.''
A number of black elected officials across America have already declared themselves for Mr. Jackson. Yet the delegates in New Orleans failed to endorse him. Jackson will undoubtedly carry the largest block of Southern delegates to Democratic national convention in Atlanta next year. In 1984, he ran a surprising third in the race for the Democratic nomination.
``We achieved organization and an agenda,'' Joe L. Reed, a city councilor in Montgomery, Ala., said of the conference. He was elected its secretary-treasurer. Mayor Richard Arrington of Birmingham, Ala., and Mayor Lottie Shackleford of Little Rock, Ark., were elected to co-chair the conference.
But Southern blacks still face some testing times. For instance, the question about Jackson's candidacy as the main source of their clout and leverage in the Democratic Party almost split the new conference. When Mayor Arrington suggested that the coalition seek an alternate candidate in case Jackson falters, the meeting grew heated. Sherman Copelin, cochairman of Jackson's Louisiana campaign along with New Orleans Mayor Sydney Barthelemew, blasted the proposal. He called it ``a stop-Jesse movement.'' Delegates voted down the proposal but left the issue unsettled.
Arrington endorses Jackson for president, although he campaigned against him in 1984, and his city, Birmingham, voted 2 to 1 against him in the primary.
As for having power to influence white votes on issues, political observers say Southern blacks have already demonstrated their strength. Focus, a newsletter of the Joint Center for Political Study, a Washington-based black think tank, in its October issue said: ``Southern blacks, who helped to elect a Democratic majority to the US Senate [in 1986], got their reward when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9 to 5 to oppose the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court....''
``With the support of 65 percent of blacks and only 10 percent of whites, Jackson is clearly dependent on black voters,'' the newsletter said. ``If the Democratic candidate field remains crowded, Jackson may very well win the primaries on March 8 in nine of the Southern states on the basis of little more than the black vote. For Jackson, Southern black voters are his best hope for staying the course - his ace in the hole, so to speak.'' More than half the nation's blacks live in the South.
How will Southern blacks relate to the nationwide goals of blacks, many of whom live in a heavily inner-city environment in contrast to the more relaxed atmosphere of the South? This question is likely to be dealt with at the Fifth National Policy Institute, scheduled for Jan. 20-23 in Washington, D.C., cosponsored by the Joint Center for Political Studies and seven national organizations.
Prof. Charles Hadley of the University of Southern Louisiana, an analyst of Southern black politics, says:
``Old-line civil rights people want an electable Democrat nominated, one who can beat any Republican candidate. Super Tuesday can be a big day for black voters and Jesse Jackson. To win, the candidate needs a united party. Old-timers here say party members can be divided, but flexible.''