Nothing Unique About It: The New Generation of African-American Politicians

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

The first time I ever used the term post-civil rights to describe the new generation of African-American politicians I was studying, the Rev. Joseph Lowery hollered at me. He wanted to know, What in the devil does that mean?

I have to admit that I had no good answer for the 86-year-old civil rights icon as we stood backstage last year at a banquet honoring the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Perhaps because it has been so meteoric, Barack Obama's ascendancy has made us lazy about our history and lazy about the language we use to describe our past as well as our present. The commentary is often breathless: It's the end of black politics, we declare. It's the beginning of black politics, we assert. It's the transformation of black politics, we decide.

That last description comes closest to being right. The Martin Luther King-era wave of activism Lowery helped lead was about demanding access to lunch counters, schoolhouse doors and voting booths, and accountability in the town squares that were the sites of lynchings and protests.

Obama's rise has demonstrated so far that a lot of that protest worked, and this latest wave of black politicians is living, breathing evidence of it. Only one generation removed from the protests their parents led, many are Ivy League graduates in their 30s, 40s and 50s who remember the 1960s—and even the 1970s—only from old video and the printed page.

But Obama is just one member of a generation of political leaders faced with a new task: honoring the contributions of their forebears without alienating the broader, multiracial audiences they need to win. I've spent part of the past year tracking dozens of these rising stars and have concluded that anyone who thinks Obama is unique is not paying attention. Consider Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker. His troubled city is into its third generation of African-American political leadership but not necessarily the good kind. Its previous two black mayors—Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James—became ensnared in fraud and corruption prosecutions (Gibson was ultimately acquitted; James was not). Booker, 39, is something else entirely. A child of the New Jersey suburbs and a graduate of Stanford and Oxford, he faces an uphill battle in transforming Newark's troubled urban landscape.

Booker shares the metabolism of Washington mayor Adrian Fenty, a triathlete who recently waved away an ambulance after he tumbled from his bike near a city freeway. Fenty, 37, has demonstrated a Zelig-like ability to appear wherever cameras are rolling—whether at crime scenes or neighborhood block parties. But his boldest move came when he engineered a city-hall takeover of Washington's struggling public schools. He hired a no-nonsense outsider, Michelle Rhee, to reform the crumbling system; it's a huge gamble politically, but the city's future could depend on its success.

San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, 43, is the first African American and first woman to hold her city's top law-enforcement post. The Howard University graduate spent several wintry days knocking on doors in Iowa for Obama. She comes to her activism honestly: her parents met at a Berkeley student protest. Another Obama backer is Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, one of only two current African-American governors. Patrick, 52, shocked the commonwealth's political establishment in 2006 when he came out of nowhere to defeat a long-favored Democrat in the primary and trounce an incumbent Republican lieutenant governor in the general election. His name is often floated in discussions of a potential Obama Cabinet, but Patrick says he plans to run for re-election in 2010.

The Obama generation is just beginning its run. South Carolina state representative Bakari Sellers is so young that when the picture on his office wall of him posing with Jesse Jackson was taken in 1988, Sellers was just 4 years old. Now 23, he is the son of Cleveland Sellers, who was jailed for his role protesting South Carolina's infamous Orangeburg massacre, and is an ardent Obama supporter. Sellers arrived at the state capitol last year and is still studying for the bar, but he is already eyeing statewide office. If he wanted to follow Obama's lead, Sellers would not be eligible to run for President until 2020. For now, it's enough that, just as Jackson drained some of the shock from the idea of electing a black President 20 years ago, Obama's 2008 may take us—if not past civil rights—at least to another level of the debate.

Ifill is the host of Washington Week on PBS, a senior correspondent for the NewsHour and the author of the forthcoming The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama