Can the New Leaders Get Some Elbow Room?

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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.


Obama did not come up through traditional Civil Rights ranks, but the reality is that he does have a network — just not theirs. His network was built at Columbia University, Harvard Law School and the Illinois State Senate. His "crew" includes bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs who have helped bankroll the Obama campaign. Obama has also tapped into a network of aspiring politicians looking around for the next office to seek. Just look at the Obama's list of endorsements:Mayors Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, Corey Booker of Newark and Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C. Then there is Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rep. Artur Davis D-Ala. All of these new leaders strike a different pose than the Civil Rights guys (and they are almost all guys).

The Obama campaign reports that there are 40 African Americans on his national finance committee who have each raised $250,000. They include people such as Ann Fudge, former chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands; John Rogers, chairman & CEO of Ariel Capital Management; and actor Hill Harper, a Harvard classmate. Another 65-70 African Americans have pledged to raise $50-$100,000. Together with those raising money at the grassroots level, the Obama campaign says African Americans have raised and over $4.5 million for his presidential campaign.


Those who marched with King come from the era of breathtaking events. They challenged the existing power structure and ushered in an era of opportunity, the fruits of which this generation of African Americans enjoys. But the savvy members of the Civil Rights generation should spend more time looking for opportunities to support the next generation of leaders and start planning an orderly transition.

If Obama loses the nomination narrowly or wins without the support of Congressional Black Caucus members such as Waters and Lewis, they could face some serious questions back home.
The Obama campaign has drawn many more people into the process. They are voting, volunteering and learning how to raise money without the full support of the black political establishment. Soon, these Obama supporters will be ready to put their new knowledge to use. Rather than wait for the torch to be passed, they may just snatch it away.


Jamal Simmons is a democratic strategist and regular commentator on CNN.

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