Obama Faces Strained Relationship with Civil Rights Leaders

William Jelani Cobb, cultural critic and associate professor of history at Spelman College, discusses his recent Op-ed concerning what he calls Illinois Sen. and White House hopeful Barack Obama's tortured relationship with black civil rights leaders.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we just discussed, Barack Obama has picked up quite a few high-profile endorsements in his campaign to win the White House. But there's one group of voices that's been missing from the Obama chorus, that of senior civil rights leaders.

Joining us now is history Professor William Jelani Cobb. He wrote a piece in this past Sunday's Washington Post about what he called Obama's tortured relationship with black civil rights leaders.

Professor Cobb, thanks for joining us.

Professor WILLIAM JELANI COBB (History, Spelman College): Thank you.

MARTIN: Why tortured?

Prof. COBB: Well, I think that what's really tortured is the elaborate rationales that people have tried to use to justify their endorsement of Hillary Clinton. And so…

MARTIN: By people - are we talking about people like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan?

Prof. COBB: Yes. These are individuals whose life work it has been to open up doors of political access for African-Americans. And then we have, for the first time, a viable black presidential candidacy, a person who has an actual chance at winning the nomination, and they've aligned themselves behind Hillary Clinton, who is, in all reality, a machine politician.

And in order to justify that, they've had to take some rather tortured arguments, the first argument being that Senator Obama was too young, which was interesting, as I pointed out in my piece, that had they not represented a generation that fundamentally rerouted the path of American democracy when they were in their early 20s, that argument might hold water. But these are people who were running around with Dr. King. And so that was, you know, not a really convincing kind of argument. The other…

MARTIN: So just to point out, I mean, Martin Luther King's birthday was yesterday, and he was 26…

Prof. COBB: Right.

MARTIN: …when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a point that you make in your piece. Well, is the issue that these folks like John Lewis, Andrew Young and so forth, is that they just - that they're against Obama, or they just think Hillary Clinton is more qualified?

Prof. COBB: I don't think that it's either, actually. I think that it is politics as usual. Everyone thought it was safe to stiff-arm Obama early on, but no one thought was that a light-skinned, Harvard-educated law professor could generate the kind of ground swell of grassroots support that Senator Obama has been able to pull together. And now, all of a sudden, everyone is having to turn around and look and say, we have been drastically out of step.

MARTIN: How do you interpret the comments like BET co-founder Bob Johnson, who, first of all, called him a - what? A Sidney Poitier-type? Which I thought was kind of interesting, and also seemed to, you know, raise questions about his character - which he denies that, you know, that that's what he was doing. How do you interpret those comments? I mean, he's not a machine politician, but he is wouldn't you say, part of the establishment?

Prof. COBB: It was very politically tone deaf for the Clinton campaign to let Bob Johnson get anywhere near Hillary Clinton in public if she's attempting to win black voters. Bob Johnson is an extremely polarizing individual, moreover, him making comments that are critical of someone who is, quite frankly, more popular among black folk than he is. It just didn't make very much sense. And it was unconscionable to me that Bob Johnson would actually take that route. But I think, again, there's a sort of, dare I say plantationish allegiance to the Clintons that quite frankly will make you scratch your head at points. And I think this is one of them.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, is that really fair, though? I mean, if people honestly believe that Hillary Clinton is the better candidate for whatever reason, don't they have a right to support her?

Prof. COBB: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that people should look at all the candidates honestly and objectively. Where the problem comes in is in the disingenuous attacks upon Senator Obama, particularly since Senator Obama has tried to run a campaign that has been above the fray and trying to introduce a new tone that was above the partisan bitterness that we see in American politics.

And so when we saw the character attack that Andrew Young launched, questioning his black authenticity, saying that Bill Clinton was every bit as black as he is, I mean, that simply is, I think, a rearguard attempt to cover one's own allegiances while maintaining favor. I'm not really selling out. I'm supporting Hillary Clinton, and, you know, they're just as black as anybody else is, too, so don't hold my feet to the fire on this.

MARTIN: Do you think that this is generational? Are you saying that you think it's because these politicians, whether they started out as movement people, are just now so closely aligned with the Democratic Party that that's really where their allegiance lies? But could it just be generational?

Prof. COBB: It is partially generational. I've heard from individuals who were in their 50s and 60s who feel largely the same way, very skeptical and very doubtful that the broader black community's interests are at the forefront. And so, overwhelmingly, I think probably the larger numbers are in - among younger people, but I don't think it's exclusively among younger people.

MARTIN: Finally, does it matter to a new generation what folks like Andrew Young and Vernon Jordan and John Lewis and Bob Johnson think? I mean, you're with students every day. You're teaching at Spelman, and do they care?

Prof. COBB: I think it matters very little. For figures like that, their political sustainability requires that they maintain the illusion of influence. And this is also one of the things that the Obama candidacy has a potential to do, which is that if all these individuals have aligned themselves and endorsed another candidate and Senator Obama is still able to capture a large portion of the black vote, it will really underscore that they do not really have a great deal of influence, particularly in the way that younger voters behave.

MARTIN: William Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history at Spelman College. He joined us from member station WCLK in Atlanta. His most recent book is "The Devil & Dave Chappelle & Other Essays." If you want to read the piece we're talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore.

Professor, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Prof. COBB: Thank you.

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