The contrasts became apparent way before the election. When civil rights hero and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young questioned Barack Obama’s blackness with a crude joke comparing the senator’s association with black women to President Bill Clinton’s, a large segment of blacks did not find it funny.
When Jesse Jackson was caught on camera in a candid moment vulgarly criticizing Obama’s message to blacks about personal responsibility, many were outraged, including Jackson’s own son and namesake, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
The public behavior of two respected leaders from the 1960s – and the reaction of some of their younger counterparts – provided perhaps the best examples of the stark differences between civil rights-era black leaders and those from Generation X, a group that a Time magazine article described as “an unsung generation born between 1965 and 1980.”
CONNECTS WITH MAINSTREAM
Andre Williams, 40, considers himself a member of Generation X. The Harvard-educated attorney, entrepreneur and Miami Gardens councilman said Obama’s election signals a new paradigm of political leadership in the black community – a more progressive, universal leadership that also appeals to mainstream America.
“Barack Obama represents a retooling of our educational system, a new immigration policy, policy towards creating jobs and building wealth for the middle class. Certain leadership in the African-American community was slow to appreciate or embrace Barack Obama and his message. It’s disappointing because it demonstrates a lack of connection with mainstream ideas,” Williams said.
That Obama’s message connected with mainstream America is evidenced by his landslide victory to become the country’s 44th president.
At 60, Florida Rep. Joseph Gibbons (D-Hallandale) can appreciate both styles of leadership. Gibbons, who is black, insists that the civil rights-era leadership was also progressive, for its time.
Gibbons, who garnered a significant share of the non-black vote in the largely Jewish Hallandale Beach community that he represents, said of Young’s challenge of Obama’s blackness and
Jackson’s muttered threat to castrate him, “That’s a difference in generations, that’s all. That’s the old style; civil rights type of leader vs. a new style, more modern leader who does not just play to the black community.”
Jackson accused Barack Obama of "talking down to black people" during what Jackson thought was a private conversation before a FOX News interview last summer, where he also said he wanted to castrate the senator.
Jackson’s son, 43, a congressman from Chicago and the national co-chair of Obama’s campaign, called his father’s remarks “divisive and demeaning.”
While he views the older style leadership as less effective, Gibbons said Obama’s victory could not have been possible without it.
“A DIFFERENT KIND OF LEADERSHIP”
Gibbons said Obama represents, “A different kind of leadership, but it was based on standing on the shoulders of those who came before us who laid the foundation for his progressive style to work.”
Bernard Lee, 35, is the managing director for Laurus Wealth Management, a financial services firm in Coral Gables.
Lee theorized that Young and Jackson’s treatment of Obama had more to do with the president-elect’s decision to be “his own man.”
The Washington, D.C native said he agrees with Gibbons that civil rights leaders “paved the way for this moment to occur,” but added, “It was tough because they wanted [Obama] to come to them to get their blessings. And he never did it.”
Gibbons clearly has his feet planted in both eras. While appreciative of the past and the privileges it affords blacks, he has embraced a progressive style of governance that has paid off – not allowing what Lee called “the generational argument,” to get in the way of progress.
He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2006 after serving three years as a commissioner for the city of Hallandale Beach, and was re-elected to his House seat without opposition in 2008.
“I represent a Jewish district. They said a black man couldn’t win the district, but we outworked them,” said the grandfather of five, who also relied on his technological know-how to reach people.
Gibbons said older politicians must embrace technology if they hope to retain their seats; but Lee contends that it will take more than technology to change the image of some “old-school” leaders.
Lee said an association with older civil rights leaders could have cost Obama the election.
“If every time you say him, you saw a traditional African-American leader, then there would have been no separation in the eyes of folks that may not have seen him that way initially. He had to make sure that there was a…distinct difference where you could see the difference between the old guard and the new guard,” he said.
Lee also said that Obama’s knowledge of what has and has not worked to move the country forward was pivotal.
“This is a guy, he is a law professor, governmental law who understands history better than anyone. He can look and say this is what we’ve done wrong ‘X’ amount of times. I can choose to follow that same script, or I can do it this way.”
Obama’s progressive leadership has to be embraced by lay people in order for him to be successful, Williams said.
“To create the transformational change that he represents, we each have a responsibility, a role, a duty to work harder, to become productive citizens; to be successful and to also reach back into our community to provide support and guidance to those people that follow us and uplift the quality of life,” he said.
Gibbons said that although Obama’s supporters’ represent more of a “Rainbow Coalition” than Jackson’s group by the same name; he has civil rights leaders to thank for his election as the nation’s first black president.
“Because of the opportunities that the leaders of the past provided for us, he was able then to go further than they were able to go and then get a deeper message out based on his background and based on the opportunities provided to him from those leaders of the past.”
Lee sums it up differently. “This wasn’t a black man running for president. This is a president who happens to be black.”
Photo: Andre Williams