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Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both laying claim to the African-American vote in the presidential primaries. That means competing for the endorsements of prominent black leaders. This month, civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia decided to back Clinton, while first-year Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick chose to side with Obama.
NPR's Allison Keyes reports now on the Lewis endorsement and how much it will matter in the larger struggle.
ALLISON KEYES: Recent national polls show Obama with a slight edge over Clinton among black voters. Both Obama and Clinton spent time wooing Lewis. He's a son of sharecroppers and was badly beaten by police during the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton showed up in Selma this year for the anniversary. Clinton brought her husband and they were at Lewis' side at the front of the march. The New York Times called Lewis' endorsement of Clinton a boost in her efforts to deepen black support for a presidential candidacy.
But long-time civil rights activist Michael Meyers says not so fast.
MICHAEL MEYERS: This is a media coup. It's not a political coup.
KEYES: Meyers is the executive director at the New York Civil Rights Coalition. He doesn't believe the Lewis endorsement is going to matter all that much to black vote.
MEYERS: The young black people, in particular, do not know who John Lewis is, much less who John Lewis was. And knowledgeable people could care less about endorsements, especially from the Congressional Black Choir(ph), I mean, Caucus, which uncharacteristically in this case, yet predictably, is divided between Hillary and Barack Obama.
KEYES: Meyers says the Congressional Black Caucus strongly supported President Bill Clinton, but Meyers doesn't believe that endorsements from a group of what he calls old-line politicians or from civil rights activists will matter to the electorate, black or white.
Hip-hop activist and author Yvonne Bynoe agrees.
YVONNE BYNOE: Yeah. I think these endorsements, frankly, are somewhat overrated.
KEYES: The senior fellow at Wake Forest University says African-American voters should be thinking more about who's best for the nation's top job than about whether to vote for a black candidate or the wife of a man many blacks thought of as America's de facto first black president.
BYNOE: I think for black Americans, many are enamored with the Clinton name. But for some people who were a little bit more critical, they would want to know what she's actually going to do and if a President Hillary Clinton is actually going to be bold enough to really affect their lives in any significant way.
KEYES: But the adulation Bill Clinton continues to receive from African- Americans is a tangible force in this campaign. Even at historically black Morehouse College at Atlanta, junior Edward Mitchell(ph) admits students are torn between Obama and Clinton. Obama won a straw poll there against Clinton, but just barely.
EDWARD MITCHELL: I think a large part of the reason that you see the split among students is because of Bill Clinton's legacy and the affinity that students have for his memory.
KEYES: But Mitchell says even though students know who John Lewis is, he doesn't think Lewis' support for Hillary Clinton will affect how people on campus vote.
MITCHELL: We all respect John Lewis' (unintelligible) to a white leader, but as far as I know, no one here has changed their mind and decided to vote for Hillary.
KEYES: Stanley Onuoha is a student body president at Morehouse. He says the whole debate over the impact of Lewis' endorsement illustrates the burden placed on African-Americans.
STANLEY ONUOHA: It shouldn't be only an African-American who led the civil rights movement is supporting a white lady, it should be an African-American who led the civil rights movement is supporting a candidate who he thinks is great and will do the job representing this country.
KEYES: Onuoha says in the eyes of many, black people lose their freedom to endorse someone who's not African-American. That, he says, marginalizes the power of the black vote.
Allison Keyes, NPR News.
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