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by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Jesse's Nod Won't Help Obama

(PNS) -- Georgia Congressman John Lewis' jumping ship from supporting Hillary Clinton to backing Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama, did more than add one more vote to Obama's delegate count. It also represented a real and symbolic passing of the civil rights torch. From the moment that Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy, Lewis was virtually welded to her political hip. He cut TV commercials with her, shared the podium at campaign events and enthusiastically touted her candidacy. He repeatedly praised and paid homage to her and hubby Bill, for their support of civil rights. To Lewis, the Clintons represented the breathing embodiment, and nostalgic remembrances of, the old civil rights battles of the 1960s.

For the near septuagenarian Lewis and the other old guard leaders, the civil rights battles were the defining moment in their lives. For four decades they have jealously guarded the memory and legacy of the civil rights battles as their special preserve against any all interlopers.

Enter Obama. He and his candidacy set off alarm bells among Lewis and the old civil rights custodians. Obama was the new popular kid on the leadership block who could muscle out the old guard civil rights leaders as black America's go-to-guys, on civil rights. Jesse Jackson, always a good bellwether of what the older generation black politicians and activists are thinking, was guarded in his praise of Obama. His caution didn't change, even after he endorsed Obama, a few months into his campaign, and hasn't prevented Jackson from taking an occasional jab at him for not speaking out on the case of the young blacks charged with assault in Jena, Louisiana, and other civil rights issues.

Sharpton has steadfastly declined to endorse Obama and the NAACP leaders have remained mostly silent about his campaign. The whispers among them were that Obama was not black enough, would not be a strong advocate for civil rights and social programs, and had not paid his civil rights or political dues.

The media helped reinforce their suspicion by tagging him as the post civil rights, African-American leader. Obama has rejected such labeling and has dutifully paid tribute to the old civil rights struggles. He maintains a respectful relationship with the older members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Obama even worked a stint as a poverty worker and civil rights attorney.

Yet it's undeniable that Obama represents a big, fresh, new departure from the race based politics and rhetoric of the old guard civil rights leaders. He's the poster boy for young, upwardly mobile business and professional blacks, who did not march, picket, sit-in, lobby Congress or fight legal battles in the courts for civil rights. Most only know about that 1960s battles through stories, anecdotes, and documentaries. Though Obama and other young black professionals profited mightily from the struggles of the 1960s, they see things very differently from Lewis and the other old guard leaders. They do not see everything through the narrow prism of race and like Obama, they see politics as consensus building, forging multi-ethnic relations with other groups, and promoting racial diversity.

Bush spotted an opening in the schism between the Obama generation and the old guard black leaders. He snubbed invitations to address NAACP conventions and in his re-election campaign in 2004 touted business, home ownership, wealth building and school vouchers. The aim was to get a bump up in black votes for the GOP from the younger generation less ideological, non-race oriented, young blacks. He had at best, modest success. But it sent the signal that a direction shift was coming in the political thinking of younger blacks.

Lewis heard the shouts from his Georgia constituents many of whom fit the Obama mold of young professionally-oriented African-Americans. They back Obama with messianic zeal and demanded that Lewis get on board the Obama train. Their passion for Obama is more than a burning desire to get a black man in the Oval Office. It is an endorsement of his style and approach and his non-race tinged message of unity and change.

Lewis' jump to Obama does not mean that many civil rights leaders will readily concede their leadership turf to Obama. The CBC remains split down the middle between Obama and Clinton. She still represents to them the old civil rights tradition and, Lewis notwithstanding, their political loyalties remain anchored to Clinton.

Still Lewis' switch to Obama is tacit recognition that Obama is more in tune with the thinking of black voters than the old guard leaders. It's also recognition that Obama in a real sense is what the civil rights leaders fought for. That was to demolish the racial barriers for the next generation of blacks. Obama's campaign represents the real and symbolic demolition of those barriers. Lewis grudgingly saw that. In time the others will be forced to see it too.

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Albion Monitor   February 28, 2008   (

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