Obama Seeks Generational Bridge Within Civil Rights Movement

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President Barack Obama smiles after making a statement to the press after a meeting with African-American faith and civil rights leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Feb. 18, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  • Amid 2016 campaign, differences emerge among black Democrats
  • White House meeting joins young activists, established leaders

President Barack Obama gathered African-American activists at the White House as generational differences are surfacing in a crucial Democratic Party constituency.

Obama, who navigated a change in leadership from veterans of the civil rights movement to a new generation in his own presidential campaign, used the meeting ahead of a White House celebration of Black History Month to offer nods to young and old.

“I would not be here if it were not for the battles that they fought a generation ago, but we’ve also got some young people here who are making history as we speak,” Obama told reporters in brief remarks on Thursday.

Though politics wasn’t on the agenda, the meeting was taking place 10 days before the Democratic primary in South Carolina, in which black voters account for about half the electorate.

Much of the Democratic party’s old-guard black political leadership is firmly behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who along with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has long ties to many black political figures and causes. The Congressional Black Caucus political action committee has formally endorsed Clinton. Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who was beaten so badly he nearly died in a 1965 voting rights march, promised to campaign for her in South Carolina.

Younger Generation

Yet a younger generation, galvanized by police brutality and economic inequality highlighted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has been cooler to her candidacy. At a rally Oct. 30 at a historically black university, Clinton was interrupted by protesters chanting “black lives matter.” Lewis, who was in the audience, personally stepped in to quell the demonstration.

Meanwhile, Sanders has been publicly backed by some younger black intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of "Between the World and Me," and Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Alexander criticized the impact of crime legislation passed under Bill Clinton’s administration on the incarceration of young black men and the effect on blacks of a welfare overhaul.

The generational division is illustrated in the family of Eric Garner, a black man who died on Staten Island after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold in 2014. His mother, Gwen Carr, endorsed Clinton and appeared at a rally with her; His daughter, Erica Garner, appeared in a television ad on behalf of Sanders.

At the White House on Thursday, Obama’s guests included civil rights heroes such as Lewis and C.T. Vivian, who both marched with Martin Luther King Jr., leaders of established civil rights groups such as the Urban League and NAACP and activists such as Brittany Packnett, co-founder of We the Protesters, who emerged in the outcry over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

Obama said he was encouraged by "the degree of focus and seriousness and constructiveness that exists not only in the existing civil rights organizations but in this new generation."

Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, a participant in the meeting, said the activists had a "long, extensive" discussion with Obama, though he said it didn’t cover the Democratic primary campaign.

Obama navigated a generational divide in his 2008 presidential campaign, in which many black political and church leaders initially backed Clinton. He portrayed himself as a transitional figure in the American civil rights struggle early in the campaign in a 2007 speech in Selma, in which he thanked the "Moses Generation" of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. who won the struggles of the 1960s and alluded to the responsibilities of a newly arrived "Joshua Generation."

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