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Civil Rights Icons Backing Clinton Have Little Company


When Barack Obama was declared the winner of Georgia’s Democratic presidential primary, the Sweet Lowdown restaurant in midtown Atlanta echoed with whoops of glee as dozens of young, Black professionals celebrated his win with raised martini glasses.

In other parts of the city, two civil rights icons had more subdued evenings, watching from separate living rooms as the Illinois senator beat their chosen candidate.

For Andrew Young and Sen. John Lewis, Hillary Rodham resounding defeat in their home state pressed home the fact they now have little company among the Black people whose cause they shouldered as they made names for themselves four decades ago.

In primaries across the country, 8 in 10 Blacks chose Obama over Clinton, according to surveys of voters as they left the polls. In Georgia, it was even more pronounced, with nearly 90 percent of them voting for the man who is seeking to become the nation’s first Black president.

Neither man said he regretted his choice. Young, who watched Super Tuesday unfold across his television screen from his tan leather recliner, is a longtime friend of the Clintons and he was hardly pouting.

“It’s really good that there’s so much excitement around this race,” the 75-year-old said. “You seem to have young voters, old voters … everybody got touched by this election. I say that everybody has finally bought into the dream, Martin Luther King’s dream.”

King’s dream of economic empowerment has become Young’s cause in the decades since his friend’s death and he said it’s one of the reasons he supports the New York senator.

“With me, Hillary was very personal,” Young said.

Lewis, the 67-year-old Georgia congressman who nearly lost his life in 1965 on Bloody Sunday in Alabama, said both Obama and Clinton represent the gains of the civil rights movement. “It’s just historic,” he said.

He endorsed Clinton in October, calling her “the best prepared to lead this country at a time when we are in desperate need of strong leadership.” Still, he said this week, it’s understandable that Blacks are uniting behind Obama.

“In a real sense, it’s the dreams and hopes and longings and inspiration of a whole generation being realized,” Lewis said.

He faced that inspiration Wednesday on a flight back to Washington. Lewis said a Black man sitting next to him on the plane recognized him, and thanked him for making Obama’s candidacy possible. It was a bittersweet moment.

“I can be a supporter of Mrs. Clinton, but I have to take pride and feel like we’re very blessed to see what is happening,” Lewis said.

William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spelman College and an Obama supporter, said some older Blacks may view Bill Clinton’s presidency as a period when their allegiances began to pay off, so they’re remaining loyal.

“The idea is that you get a guaranteed return with the Clintons, whereas Obama is a relative unknown quantity,” Cobb said. “And older African-Americans may be swayed by established figures of their generation who lined up behind Clinton.”

Joseph Lowery, the so-called dean of the civil rights movement and an Obama supporter, is less kind. He quipped that older Black leaders who have chosen Clinton are simply ill.

“They are infected with a disease called establishmentarianism,” said Lowery, 86. “That is a succor to the folks who they think either have the power, or are about to get the power. They’re just stuck in the past and they can’t move forward. But the people have gone and left them. They’re like the drum major who couldn’t find the band.”

At the restaurant on Tuesday night, 35-year-old Katrina Shy said she wished she could have brought along her father, who opted for Clinton over Obama.

“He really doesn’t think that white America is ready for a Black president and there’s no way they’re going to elect him,” Shy said. “When I was growing up, everything was integrated, so I just started realizing that we’re all the same people. I think a lot of people in our age range feel the same way because we grew up in a time of desegregation.”

At the restaurant on Tuesday night, Shy toasted Obama’s Georgia win with friends Tremesha Willis and Cristal Miller all proudly wearing T-shirts and buttons sporting his name. Shy gushed about Obama’s message of unifying the country, and clapped as he was declared the winner in his home state of Illinois.

“I’ve never been so inspired by a candidate that there’s hope for America, that we can change,” she said.

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