Step Aside

What does the Obama generation mean for the old heads?

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

“I have nothing but admiration for what they’re doing, and I have the time and energy to help them with what they’re doing.”

Clyburn took offense when some black leaders of his generation questioned Obama’s suitability as a presidential candidate because he was not a direct product of the civil rights movement and had not grown up in the U.S. and experienced the same level  of racism that blacks in the U.S. had.

“Why should we ask him to plow the same ground that we did?” he asks.

“That would mean that we failed. My parents made significant sacrifices under difficult times to make sure that I and my brothers would be in the position take advantage of opportunity when it knocks. It was drilled in us to be prepared. We were taught that everything is generational, and I have done the same thing with my three daughters, the oldest of whom is the same age as Barack Obama.”

Simmons and Clyburn were part of a debate that grew more intense during the presidential campaign, as an Obama win grew more likely. What would become of the older black civil rights leaders and elected officials who cut their teeth on the pitched battles of the civil rights movement?

Would they be or seem less relevant?

Would they be marginalized by newer politicians, like Obama who are basking in the so-called “post-racial” euphoria now sweeping the country?

Would there be a new paradigm for black candidates seeking elected office to be less like the grassroots-inspired Rev. Jackson and more like the Ivy-League-educated Obama or Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, or U.S. Rep. Artur Davis.

The answers depend on which side of the age divide one stands. Though older black elected officials are still influential, that may change with the ascendancy of Obama and his like-minded peers. These younger politicians are forging new political paths, running on issues not viewed as traditionally black causes and winning office with large white voter support. Older elected officials are more rooted in the struggles of the past and are largely dependent on the support of black constituents in majority black districts. 

They are a product of their history,” says Rick Wade, 46, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign who oversaw black voter strategy. “They are looking through the prism of their own experiences, experiences rooted oftentimes in race and racism. That’s not a criticism; it’s just a reality. I did not have to march and fight against poll taxes, and I didn’t have to pay poll taxes.”