Can the New Leaders Get Some Elbow Room?

It's time to pass on the torch.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Watching Sen. Ted Kennedy on Monday pass the torch of his storied family to Barack Obama and a new generation, I couldn’t help thinking maybe it’s time for the Civil Rights generation to do the same in the black political community. More often than not, it seems, African American leaders are playing “keep away” with the next generation and the cool reaction of many Civil Rights-era leaders to the Obama campaign is a prime example.

African Americans are starting to move behind Obama in large numbers. The latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows that 66 percent of blacks support Obama, while 16 percent support Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president. Yet the leaders of the Civil Rights generation seem just as likely to vigorously oppose the first black man with a serious chance to be president as to support him.

The day after the Kennedy endorsement, Rep. Maxine Waters D-Calif. endorsed Clinton over Obama, saying in a statement: “At a time when the economy continues to worsen and so many of my constituents are losing their homes and their jobs, we need someone with the leadership and experience who can step in on day one to tackle the economic challenges our country is facing.”

Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been a reliable Obama supporter. But Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also marched with King and has endorsed Obama, is as critical of the senator as he is supportive. While the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. John Conyers D-Michigan, supports Obama, Rep. Charlie Rangel D-New York, the first black chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is a Hillary Clinton supporter. Rangel believes that Obama is “not as qualified” as Clinton even though he has more electoral experience than she does. And after Clinton and Obama clashed over the role of Martin Luther King. Jr. in advancing racial equality, Rangel characterized some of Obama’s comments as “dumb” and “stupid.” He has since apologized.

Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, opposes Obama on the basis of qualifications, and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, another SCLC alumnus, really lifted the veil at an Atlanta forum on black politics:

“I want Barack Obama to be president–in 2016…It’s not a matter of being inexperienced. It is a matter of being young…You’ve gotta have a certain protective network around you…Barack Obama does not have the support network yet, to get to be president…He’s smart, he’s brilliant, but you cannot be president alone…I’ve talked to people in Chicago and they don’t know anything about him…”

Young’s comments, made last September, betray what I suspect to be at the core of his generation’s player hatred. They don’t know Obama and they would prefer that he just wait awhile until they feel more comfortable with him and say it’s OK. In fact, Rangel told Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert that Obama would get “another chance at it in eight years.”

Clinton hinted that she shares this frustration at Obama’s impatience. At an event in New York City last week she spoke of the way Rangel became Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee: “He didn’t get there by leapfrogging.”

The problem with this line of criticism is that it flies in the face of history. As Dr. King wrote in his famous Letter form a Birmingham Jail, “this ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.'” These leaders did not wait to be blessed by the establishment before seeking their own seats of power. Rangel took on the most popular African American congressman of his generation, Adam Clayton Powell. Lewis first ran (and lost) against a more “experienced” white city councilman named Wyche Fowler in 1977, before taking on Julian Bond, who helped him found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder and was the black establishment choice for that seat in a brutal 1986 race.