Nov. 24, 2008—The 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."
"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."
Wade says that for his generation, winning politics means focusing on the economy, nuclear proliferation, the environment and a host of other broader issues that that resonate across diverse constituencies. He says this doesn't always hold true for some older black civil rights leaders and elected officials.
"The issues have changed. We're not the same country that we were back then, and those who can change with the times are the ones who will succeed and have the greatest impact as leaders. I'm not saying that civil rights are not important and worth protecting; it very much is. Afterall, I am who I am because of the gains civil rights movement. "
Interestingly, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., 43, the son of the Rev. Jackson, is among the young politicians forging a new political path and is now in the running to replace Obama in the U.S. Senate. Nevada State Senator Steven Horsford, 35, who was co-chair of Obama's campaign there, became the first black in the state's history to become majority leader. Others such as Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., Cory Booker of Newark, N.J. and Jay Williams of Youngstown, Ohio are making their marks as mayors. (Williams was elected the city's first black mayor at age 34 and is the first independent candidate to win the post in more than 80 years.)
Mayors Fenty, 37, and Booker, 39, both ran against older, black establishment politicians. Mayor Booker's opponent, Sharpe James, 72, served five four-year terms as mayor and took the Ivy Leaguer to task not only for challenging him, but also for not being visibly committed to black voters and causes. Sound familiar? Think " not black enough ."
Young political observers point out that with a few notable exceptions such as Joseph Lowery, 87, the civil rights era icon and national co-chairman of Obama's presidential campaign, many older black politicians were initially dismissive of Obama and slow to support him. Some, such as Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, came around only when it became clear that Obama might win and that they would be left standing on the wrong side of history if they failed to support him.
Lowery became an early supporter of Obama after hearing him speak in Selma, Ala., in 2007.
"I sensed his destiny when he talked about being part of the Joshua generation and that he stood on the shoulders of the Moses generation," Lowery says. "That showed me that he not only had a vision for the future but that he had a reverence for the past. I think that uniquely equipped him to take the helm of leadership. Some people have a vision for the future but no roots in the past, and some people have roots in the past but no vision for the future. I think he brought a combination of these qualities that made him ready to lead."
Lowery says there really shouldn't even be a debate over what he called "the changing of the guard."
"There's no holding back the dawn of a new day, time moves on," he says. "It's not unique. It's natural progression that new and younger leaders would come in and take their places, and I'm so proud of them. I stand in awe of the possibilities for their futures
Still, Simmons says the generational divide also explains why older black leaders did not initially embrace Obama—and why younger blacks did.
"We flat out saw something that they could not even imagine because of the indignities they suffered in the past," he said. "Most of them did not believe Obama could win. They did not listen to us, and they should have trusted us more. The sad thing about all of this is that we are living what they fought for, and they seem to resent us for it."
Not so, says Minyon Moore, a Democratic political strategist and former assistant to President Bill Clinton.
"They are overjoyed by the many people who are now ascending to office, and that's what they worked for," she says, adding that all her political mentors are in their late 70s. "The truth of the matter is we learn from them, and we owe them a lot."
Ron Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and director of its African-American Leadership Center, takes umbrage at the very notion that black leadership needs, or is experiencing, a changing of the guard.
"We can't lay down the old strategies just because their old," he says. "We've got to have all of our instruments of change. Every generation has faced this struggle; it's not new. The thing that is new is understanding where this generation finds its place in the struggle."
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist and pollster for the Obama campaign, believes it's shortsighted to call on the older generation to step aside.
"Frankly our democracy and our country is big enough for all these new black leaders as well as the civil rights leaders whose shoulders they stand on," he says. "I think it is a strategic mistake to see this as an either/or proposition."
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.
This article was updated and contains information not present in the original version.