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Black Voters Generations Apart

January 18, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

ATLANTA ( — When civil rights elders signed on to support Hillary Rodham Clinton’s run for president, it was seen as a coup in the competition for the black vote, especially in the Deep South.

Yet many younger black voters seem to be shrugging off the sway of leaders such as Rep. John Lewis and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, siding instead with Barack Obama’s history-making bid to be the nation’s first black president.

It’s a generational struggle that should serve as a warning to Democrats as they head into primary contests in states with large black populations: The black vote today is anything but monolithic.

It also suggests the influence the civil rights leaders have enjoyed as political kingmakers is waning.

The figureheads are not actually gatekeepers to the black vote,” said William Jelani Cobb, a 38-year-old history professor at the historically black Spelman College.

No disrespect, but they don’t speak for us.”

The candidates face their first showdown for black votes in South Carolina on Jan. 26 and another Feb. 5 in Super Tuesday states with large minority populations, such as Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas.

Clinton and Obama have been aggressively courting black votes for some time. Both visited Selma, Ala., in March for the anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march in 1965. And Obama is set to speak at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sunday, a visit expected to be rich in symbolism coming the day before the King holiday.

In a sign of what’s at stake, a heated dispute has erupted over Clinton’s comment that King’s dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bill Clinton’s putdowns of the Illinois senator also have offended some blacks. Altogether, the scrap between the Clintons and the Obama camp has awakened racial sensitivities in the party that is supposed to know how to deal with race.

Blacks have traditionally voted overwhelmingly Democratic and Obama is picking up their support fast, according to new polls. An ABC-Washington Post survey this week found a 21-point increase in support for Obama among black voters in the last month, putting him up 60-32 over Clinton. He led the New York senator 49-34 in a CBS-New York Times poll.

Still, Clinton’s husband enjoyed such strong support from black voters that he was dubbed the first black president. And Hillary Clinton has been able to capitalize on long-standing friendships with the black political elite in scoring endorsements. Whether that will translate into black votes is anyone’s guess.

For me personally, I have a long association with the Clintons and I’m very loyal to my friends,” said Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat.

Younger blacks don’t share the same loyalties. And some lump older black leaders with the political establishment they say Obama is aiming to upend.

One civil rights veteran who is backing Obama shares that view. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, calls colleagues who are supporting Clinton “good old boys.”

They are business-as-usual, old-guard politicians and it’s hard for them to break out of that mold,” Lowery said.

At a speech Wednesday before the Hungry Club at the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, Lowery said blacks who doubt Obama’s ability to compete are guilty of “a slave mentality.”

No matter how much education they have, they never graduated from the slave mentality,” Lowery said. “The slavery mentality compels us to say, ‘We can’t win, we can’t do.'”

Clinton has lined up the support of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, one-time basketball superstar Magic Johnson, Motown founder Berry Gordy and Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson among others. Obama has Oprah Winfrey in his corner as well as R&B crooner Usher.

Clinton has poet Maya Angelou; Obama has the rapper Ludacris — a generational split all its own.

The campaign has divided some prominent households, too.

Jesse Jackson, who tried to become the first black president in his 1984 and 1988 campaigns, and his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., are backing Obama. The elder Jackson’s wife, Jacqueline, is supporting Clinton.

Georgia state Rep. Bob Holmes, former director of Clark Atlanta University’s Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, said blacks in the South could once count on a rigid brand of machine politics in which black churches and civic leaders delivered their voters.

That machine is no more, he said. “The younger generation is more independent and make up their own minds.”

Holmes also said younger blacks feel the old guard set its sights too low.

This isn’t the generation of slow struggle,” he said. “This is the Me Generation and if they see a viable black candidate for president they don’t see a reason why that shouldn’t be possible right now.”

Rick Dent, a political strategist who has worked for Democratic campaigns throughout the South, said older black leaders adopted a more pragmatic political approach out of necessity.

For the John Lewises of the world, who’ve been hit in the head with a baton, they have a different perspective,” Dent said. “You’ve got a new generation of African-Americans with no contact or understanding with what he had to go through, thank God.”

LaDawn Jones bounced her 5-month-old daughter Lyndon on her knee at a party that brought several hundred Obama supporters together to watch returns in the New Hampshire primary won by Clinton. She said she backed Clinton at first because she thought the New York senator had a better chance of winning in November.

Now Jones is behind Obama, explaining, “I want to go for the gold.”


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