Step Aside

What does the Obama generation mean for the old heads?

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

Nov. 24, 2008The image of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. standing on the lawn at Grant Park in Chicago, tears streaming down   his face as he listened to America’s first black president address thousands of adoring supporters, is sure to be one of the iconic images of the historic election

It was a poignant sight—the first black man to make a serious run for the American presidency witnessing the first black man win the presidency. One could envision Jackson, 67, on the stage with Obama, 47, passing some metaphorical torch of black leadership.

Still, some of us wondered whether Jackson was crying for Obama or for himself. Was it a “damn-I’m-proud-of-you” moment or a “damn-it-should-have-been-me” moment?     

It’s a cynical thought, for sure. But it’s worth remembering that not long ago the good reverend publicly let slip his Freudian wish to, well, you know, turn our next president into a eunuch. No need to revisit that embarrassing chapter of the presidential campaign, but some people believe it’s time for Jackson and other black leaders of his generation to take a well-deserved bow for their contributions and step back to let the new generation of black leaders take center stage.

That’s not to say older generation leaders should not be seen or heard from again. On the contrary, their history and experience are valuable to the debate and will continue to be so.   

Still, the movement of relatively young, politically savvy, well-educated and highly polished black men into leadership positions as mayors, governors, members of Congress and even as head of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization —positions traditionally held by older black men—is precisely what black America needs to move forward. And that push should also include more black women.

“Every successful corporation or organization in America has a succession plan and so should the civil rights community,” says Jamal Simmons, 37, a Democratic strategist. “It’s been a travesty that we have not had more transition in new black leadership in the last 10 to 15 years.

He has a point. The average age of the 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus is 61. Eight members are over 70 years old. Only six members of the CBC are in their 40s, and just one is in his 30s. What’s more, many of the civil rights era leaders are either heading toward or have passed 70. Julian Bond and U.S. Rep. John Lewis are 68, for example, and Andrew Young is 76.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, 68, the third ranking member of the U.S. House and the highest ranking black in Congress, says he has no problem with the idea that at some point, “I should move off the scene.” After all, the ascendancy of Obama and other young black politicians “is what we all worked for.”