POLITICS
09/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NYT Mag: Is Obama The End Of Black Politics?

Forty-seven years after he last looked out from behind the bars of a South Carolina jail cell, locked away for leading a march against segregation in Columbia, James Clyburn occupies a coveted suite of offices on the second and third floors of the United States Capitol, alongside the speaker and the House majority leader. Above his couch hangs a black-and-white photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Charleston, with the boyish Clyburn and a group of other men standing behind him onstage. When I visited Clyburn recently, he told me that the photo was taken in 1967, nine months before King's assassination, when rumors of violence were swirling, and somewhere on the side of the room a photographer's floodlight had just come crashing down unexpectedly. At the moment the photo was taken, everyone pictured has reflexively jerked their heads in the direction of the sound, with the notable exception of King himself, who remains in profile, staring straight ahead at his audience. Clyburn prizes that photo. It tells the story, he says, of a man who knew his fate but who, quite literally, refused to flinch. ...

It is hard for any outsider to fully understand the thinking that led many older black leaders to spurn the candidacy of a man who is now routinely pictured, along with '60s-era revolutionaries like Angela Davis and Malcolm X, on the T-shirts sold at the street-corner kiosks of black America. ("You'd be real embarrassed if he won and you wasn't down with it," the comedian Chris Rock joked to a Harlem audience while introducing Obama last November. "You'd say: 'Aww, I can't call him now! I had that white lady! What was I thinking?' ") Conversations like those I had with Clyburn and Lewis, however, begin to illuminate just how emotionally complicated such internal deliberations were. ...

The generational transition that is reordering black politics didn't start this year. It has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year's Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition and thrust it into the open as never before, exposing and intensifying friction that was already there. For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama's candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle -- to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.

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