Is Obama the End of Black Politics?

Publication: New York Times Magazine

Author: Matt Bai

08/06/2008 - 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.

On the day in early July when Clyburn and I talked, Barack Obama, who is the same age as one of Clyburn’s three daughters, had recently clinched his party’s nomination for president. Clyburn, who as majority whip is the highest-ranking black elected official in Washington, told me that on the night of the final primaries he left the National Democratic Club down the street about 15 minutes before Obama was scheduled to speak and returned home to watch by himself. He feared he might lose hold of his emotions.


According to an analysis by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, almost 37 percent of black families fell into one of the three top income quintiles in 2005, compared with 23 percent in 1973. At the same time, though, these black leaders are constantly confronted in their own cities and districts by blighted neighborhoods that are predominately black, places where poverty collects like standing water, breeding a host of social contagions.

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