Black civil rights leaders seem unwilling or unable to unite around Sen. Barack Obama’s ascendancy as a political leader and potentially the presidency, with all having a different position on whether he should be passed the torch.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been a critic of Mr. Obama, recently warned the Illinois Democrat in a sermon given in Chester, Pa., not to forget the civil rights movement as he runs for president.
Mr. Obama’s speech at the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala., spoke of the movement as having brought him opportunity and proclaimed himself a member of the “Joshua generation” to civil rights leaders of the past.
“What I said is that I agree with him that we are part of the Joshua generation, but Joshua came from the ranks of Moses to continue the struggle and not to abandon the struggle,” Mr. Sharpton said.
“So being a part of the Joshua generation is based on your work and not your age because if we don’t bring people across to Jordan, then we have not reached the status of Joshua generation.”
Mr. Sharpton said the press has been trying to pit him and Mr. Obama against each other. He said some of Mr. Obama’s supporters have accused the 2004 presidential candidate of being jealous of the Illinois senator.
“This is a new twist that people are using to keep from answering questions about civil rights,” Mr. Sharpton said.
“I do not think we can live in the world where we can’t ask questions about our issues because we are the same race or gender; every women’s group in America is asking Hillary about Roe versus Wade and other women’s issues, so are they jealous of Hillary … that’s ridiculous.”
Mr. Sharpton said he is every day “more inclined not to run for president,” noting that none of the Democratic candidates has a clear civil rights agenda, reflected in polls showing that not one has attained 50 percent of the black vote.
And this indecision is clear in how other black leaders have positioned themselves so far in the race.
Older black leaders like Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan called Mr. Obama a “beautiful person” and said it was “all right” for the candidate to keep at arm’s length controversial leaders like himself or Mr. Obama’s own pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., with a more black-nationalist perspective, in the interests of protecting his campaign.
Younger black politicians like Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat and the nation’s only Muslim member of Congress, has endorsed Mr. Obama, saying he is the only candidate with a unification message.
Meanwhile, older blacks have held back from endorsing anyone at all, preferring to wait and see who will court their support.
“And that is what the problem is,” said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
“Barack went around them to build his own political base in a quirky way by building a base of young black and white voters, and he eventually didn’t need old guard black leaders. He eschewed the black political machine.”
She said in black American culture where youth are taught to be silent and give all deference to their elders, Mr. Obama is in a difficult position as the young candidate giving deference to his elders but trumping their authority by seeking higher goals of power and influence.
She also said Mr. Obama’s uneasy alliance with black political leaders stems from his early days in Chicago when he ran against Democratic Rep. Bobby L. Rush, a former Black Panther, in 1996 and lost as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and members of the Congressional Black Caucus chastised him and told him to wait his turn.
But Ms. Lacewell said that unlike 11 years ago, it is his time now, and he should not be told to continue waiting.