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MLK's political heirs pursue his dream, theirs

In Barack Obama and a new generation of black political leaders — a generation that never fought off Bull Connor’s dogs, or desegregated lunch counters — a civil rights promise is being  fulfilled
Presidential Candidates Address Democratic Natl Committee Annual Meeting
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential hopeful, reflects both a shifting landscape and a changing of the guard for black political leaders in America.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Roger Wilkins was there at the dawn of the civil rights movement. He was there, fighting for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, marching in Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King and so many other black heroes.

Barack Obama wasn’t there. He was just a child in 1965.

But that’s OK with Wilkins. In Obama and a new generation of black political leaders — a generation that never fought off Bull Connor’s dogs, or desegregated lunch counters — Wilkins sees a promise fulfilled.

“They are what we wanted to happen,” said Wilkins, a professor at George Mason University, as Obama prepared to launch his presidential campaign Saturday.

“You’re getting some of the real fruits of the civil rights movement. I don’t view them as in opposition to us, but people born in 1961 see the world differently than people born in 1931 — and it should be that way.”

New generation of black leaders
Obama, 45, offers a portfolio — lawyer, educator, state lawmaker, U.S. senator — that reflects both a shifting landscape and a changing of the guard for black political leaders in America.

Decades ago, many black politicians shared similar roots: They studied at historically black colleges, became ministers, teachers and activists and made their names fighting racial injustice — braving death threats, police dogs and water hoses along the way.

These days, many black political leaders have similar résumés: They have Ivy League degrees and have worked as lawyers and legislators. They know their way around the towers of high finance and can raise money everywhere from Hollywood to Wall Street.

Their ranks include Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., a former Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School graduate and Stanford football star; Deval Patrick, the new governor of Massachusetts who was the Justice Department’s top civil rights official in the Clinton administration and counsel for Texaco and Coca-Cola; and Artur Davis, an Alabama congressman and Harvard law graduate, who like his former classmate, Obama, is eyeing higher office.

“What you’re getting is black people who come into politics the way most of the white guys do — you’re interested in public affairs, you go to law school, you do some local stuff, you run for office,” Wilkins said.

Add to that “juniors” who’ve taken up the family business. They include U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the 41-year-old son of the civil rights activist and two-time presidential candidate, and Harold Ford Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps to the U.S. House. After losing a Senate race in Tennessee last year, Ford, 36, recently took the helm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Both men, incidentally, are products of St. Albans School, where Washington’s mandarin families have been grooming their sons for leadership for decades. (Former Vice President Al Gore also is a graduate.)

This younger generation is not without its own civil rights bona fides: Jackson Jr. — born while his father was in Alabama demonstrating for voting rights — spent his 21st birthday in jail after being arrested in an anti-apartheid protest. Obama was a community organizer registering minority voters in Chicago. Patrick worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

But when it comes to issues, younger black leaders don’t always march lockstep with those who preceded them.

“They’re less liberal than the earlier generation of black politicians,” said David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank. “That doesn’t mean they’re conservative.”

Young leaders called more business-friendly
Bositis said the younger leaders tend to be more business-friendly. Some, including Booker, also are more receptive to programs such as school vouchers. The idea is attractive to many black constituents disappointed by the failures of big-city public schools.

Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, doesn’t see any great generational split on issues but does sense friction on who speaks for the black community.

“Is it going to be members of Congress or civil rights leaders?” he asks. “That tension is going to be there as long as there’s a black leadership class.”

Perhaps the biggest difference for younger black politicians is in the growth of opportunity.

“For an African-American politician born in the 50s or the 40s, Congress was the highest aspirational level,” said Davis, 39, the Alabama congressman. “That was the most that you could be if everything went well in your career, or possibly the head of a Cabinet office like HUD.”

Civil rights hero John Lewis, brutally beaten during the “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march in 1965 in Selma, found a home in Congress, where he has served Georgia for two decades. Andrew Young, a minister and lieutenant of the Rev. Martin Luther King, became mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations.

Aspirations beyond Congress
Julian Bond, a civil rights activist, was a longtime Georgia legislator. With his telegenic looks and mellifluous voice, he seemed destined for higher office — he did lose a congressional bid — but he said he sensed there was a limit to his political ambitions.

“I had no expectation — none at all — I could aspire to the U.S. Senate,” said Bond who teaches civil rights at American University and the University of Virginia.

Bositis, the think tank expert, said some young black politicians now feel they have the experience and skills to reach beyond Congress.

“In terms of House races, the situation is ‘been there, done that,’ ” he said. “They want to win statewide office. They want to be governor, senator and eventually president. ... They think that the opportunity is there.”

But few have made the leap.

Michael Steele, the first black statewide elected official in Maryland, lost his U.S. Senate bid last year. But the former Republican lieutenant governor said younger black politicians are not going to “wait in line” to seek office.

“We’re going to step outside of our comfort zone and push the envelope,” said Steele, 48.

Obama, from Illinois, is the only black member of the U.S. Senate and just the third in modern history, following Carol Moseley Braun, also of Illinois, and Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

Congressional Black Caucus tripled in size
Patrick of Massachusetts is the second elected black governor; L. Douglas Wilder served a term in Virginia in the 1990s.

But the number of black members of Congress has grown dramatically in recent decades, largely because of redistricting that followed the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

Before that, most black members of Congress represented overwhelmingly minority districts in the North; the South had just a handful of black lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The Congressional Black Caucus has tripled in size since the 1970s — it has 43 members — and Davis, the Alabama congressman, said in nearly half those districts, the constituencies are less than 60 percent black.

“As a practical matter,” he said, “to get re-elected, you have to develop an appeal broader than just your race.”

Cory Booker, who won the top job in Newark last year, said that’s just as true in his heavily minority city. Nearly 40 years ago when Kenneth Gibson became Newark’s first black mayor, he said, the feeling among many blacks was: “Let’s get somebody who looks like us.”

That attitude has disappeared, he said. “The black-white American landscape is no longer. We’re representing more diverse constituencies,” said Booker, who learned Spanish so he could converse with many Newark residents.

Mayors face tight budgets, shrinking job bases and demands that make skin color irrelevant, he said. “Even my black constituents are now saying we’re not electing you because you’re black,” Booker said, “we’re electing you because we want very specific things.”

Obama's ambitions compared with Jackson's
Black mayors also are nothing new: Over the decades they have presided in cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

But City Hall and the White House are worlds apart.

Ever since Obama started mulling a presidential campaign, pundits have raised the inevitable comparisons to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s bids for the White House in 1984 and 1988.

But there’s a vast difference in the two candidacies beyond the generation that separates them.

Jackson had never held political office before his campaign. Obama has served as a lawmaker on the state and national level.

As a civil rights activist, no one expected Jackson to be the Democratic nominee, Bositis said, but Obama “is not going to be running to make a statement. He is going to be running to win.”

Can he?

Race alone won’t harm Obama’s chances, Bositis said. “I wouldn’t say the playing field is even, but it is even enough,” he said. “And if he’s the exceptional candidate that many people think he is, he could be elected.”