A Civil Rights Divide Over Obama

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Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Democratic candidate for President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle greet supporters after Obama won the South Carolina primary.

Though just one of the 25 Super Tuesday states, Georgia Democrats are likely to be particularly conflicted by their choices on that primary day. The state is the historic heart of the civil rights movement and veterans of that struggle are finding themselves deeply divided over the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — a division complicated by the Illinois Senator's appeal among younger African Americans.

Prominent black leaders such as former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, both onetime associates of Martin Luther King Jr., have endorsed Clinton. But other civil rights movement veterans in Georgia like the Rev. Joseph Lowery and local leaders like Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin have come out for Obama because they believe he shares King's inclusive beliefs. It is a contentious divide. Young, for his part, has said Obama is too young to be President and should wait until 2016 to run, while Lowery has said that blacks who doubt Obama could do so because of a "slave mentality."

"No matter how much education they have, they never graduated from the slave mentality," Lowery told a largely black audience in mid-January. "The slave mentality compels us to say 'We can't win. We can't do.' Martin said the people who were saying 'later' were really saying 'never.' But the time to do right is always right now."

And while the division among the veterans is dramatic, the generational divide is even more stark. Just ask William Jelani Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. Shortly after Obama's resounding victory in the South Carolina primary, he asked his African-American history class what it thought about the presidential election. Of the 26 students in his class, he said 25 supported Obama and one was undecided. "When I pointed out what the Clintons had done vis-a-vis black issues, one of my students said 'Oh, you do something nice for us and then your wife gets to have the presidency?'" Cobb said.

Six days before the South Carolina primary, Obama linked arms with Rev. Raphael G. Warnock — a representative of the younger cohort of African-American community leaders — and sang, "We Shall Overcome" before parishioners at Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Warnock was careful not to issue an endorsement; nevertheless, he introduced Obama to congregants in a manner fit for a king: "Giants have stood here so we don't take this pulpit lightly, but we invited this brother because he's committed and brilliant," Warnock said. "We had to fight, bleed and die just to be able to vote," Warnock added. "Now we can select Presidents. And now with credibility and intelligence and power, we can run for President." A Jan. 25 Rasmussen Reports poll, taken before John Edwards dropped out of the race, shows Obama leading Clinton 41% to 35% statewide. According to Rasmussen, Obama leads 59% to 28% among African-American voters; Clinton leads 44% to 25% among white voters.

"I think we're reaching the point where [the old guard] will need Obama more than he needs them," says Cobb. "What happened in South Carolina was unprecedented because you had a vast majority of the Democratic establishment lining up behind [Hillary Clinton] and they still could not deliver the vote. It tilted radically in the opposite direction."

However, Cobb says that while race is "an important landmark [it is] not the determining one. We're not so hungry for a black President that we'll vote for anyone." He sees several calculations going on in the minds of the black electorate — and in each individual black political leader. "If Obama wins the nomination and wins in November, they will be in the position of being a black person who opposed the first black President," Cobb says. "If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination and then loses in November, then they will be in the position of having picked the wrong horse in the race. If Clinton wins the primaries and in November, then it will stave off the inevitable, that there will be a political cost for supporting her. Some people in the black community are looking at the black politicians who represent them right now and wondering whether they could lose their seat in Congress. The fact that that's on the table right now is interesting."

There remains substantial hesitation among older African-American voters. "People with high crossover appeal like Obama are viewed with great skepticism [by black voters], because people aren't sure whether a candidate like that would come through for them," says Andra Gillespie, an assistant professor of political science at Emory University. "If Obama were President of the U.S. and had to deal with a Jena 6 or Hurricane Katrina, people wouldn't be sure whether he could identify the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It's not a valid critique, but maybe they think he hasn't been as forceful an advocate for black issues as they'd like."

With Obama's chances at winning the Democratic nomination as yet uncertain, Gillespie says there will still be skepticism among black leaders. "If he had a 75 or 80% chance, I think more people would fall in line," she says.