Doug Moore and Jake Wagman
2/1/08 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Barack Obama's emergence as a top presidential contender has
shattered the racial ceiling in American politics, moving the dream
of having a black man in the White House into the realm of
But are black voters ready to embrace him?
Obama enjoys strong but not overwhelming support among blacks going
into Tuesday's high-stakes primary in Missouri, Illinois and 22
Many black voters are supporting his Democratic rival's attempt to
carve her own place in history: Madame President. And don't forget
Hillary Clinton's other claim to fame: Wife of the man extolled as
the "first black president."
The match-up has energized the black voting base more than any other
time since the Civil Rights era, some political leaders say.
"Frankly, this race with Hillary and Barack Obama has done something
that has not been done since the late 1960s," said U.S. Rep. Emanuel
Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat who supports Clinton.
Who black voters are supporting -- and not supporting -- appears to
reflect the nuanced allegiances many black voters bring to the
ballot box and the efforts of both candidates to court their
In Missouri, where the black vote seems up for grabs, support for
Clinton stems from loyalty to her husband and lingering skepticism
about Obama's acceptance into the political mainstream. A recent
Post-Dispatch/KMOV poll suggested that many black voters supported
Clinton, or John Edwards, who dropped out of the race Wednesday, or
were undecided. (But both remaining Democratic contenders fared far
better than any Republican among black voters.)
The dynamics are different in Illinois, where voters catapulted
Obama from state legislator to the national stage. In his home
state, Obama enjoys a comfortable lead. He polled stronger than any
other candidate among all voters surveyed, black and white.
Nationally, Obama had trailed Clinton among black voters, but now
about 60 percent favor him, according to recent polls. Of the
country's 142 million registered voters, blacks make up 11.3
percent, according to the U.S. census.
Whether it's Clinton or Obama, Democrats are poised to make history.
The likely nominee will either be the first black or first woman
presidential candidate from a major party.
"These two people don't fit the mold of who has been president,"
said Kimberly Edwards, 23, a graduate assistant at the University of
Missouri-St. Louis. "They represent a change in leadership that
we've never had."
Edwards has noticed a stronger push this primary season to win over
black voters, particularly in Missouri.
Clinton's state campaign co-chairs include prominent
African-Americans such as Cleaver, who was the first black mayor of
Kansas City, and the Rev. B.T. Rice, a well-known pastor in north
St. Louis County. Obama has wooed black officials at City Hall,
while his surrogates have hoisted his name alongside iconic figures
such as Martin Luther King Jr.
"Barack is standing on the shoulders of Dr. King, on the shoulders
of Malcolm X, on the shoulders of Medgar Evers and Bobby Kennedy,"
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, told the congregation at
the Community Church of God in Black Jack on Sunday morning.
In an interview, Clay suggested that some black leaders have fallen
prey to polarizing tactics by the Clinton campaign. "Divide and
conquer," he said.
At times, gender and race have overshadowed differences on important
issues such as Iraq and health care. But interviews with black
voters and politicians hint at a more complex equation.
"You cannot expect a blind endorsement," said state Rep. Connie L.
Johnson, whose district hugs the river in far north St. Louis. "You
cannot automatically assume that because we share something in
common, i.e. race, then that automatically guarantees support."
Johnson, who was supporting Edwards until he dropped out, says she
received plenty of grief from peers for not standing by Obama. "They
were like, 'Golly, Connie, you sold out. How you going to support
the white boy?'" said Johnson, who has not publicly said whom she
would support with Edwards out of the race.
Obama's growing support within the Democratic establishment has led
some African-Americans to question Obama's commitment to black
issues, Johnson said.
"Black folks are saying, 'All of these white people are getting on
board with Obama like he's the best thing since refrigeration,'"
Johnson said. "If they feel so strongly, why have they never
supported an African-American statewide?"
Others are taking a more pragmatic approach. Missouri state Rep.
Esther Haywood, who worked as a teacher in East St. Louis, said
nominating Obama will only set Democrats up for failure. "Sure, we
would like to see a black elected," said Haywood, of Normandy. "But
what we've got to look at is who is most electable."
That position is shared by Tiara Rogers, 25, who works as an
assistant in building operations at UMSL. She said she is leaning
toward Obama. "But I don't think America is ready for an
African-American president," Rogers said. "The sad part is that
we're paying attention to first woman and first black and not the
Many African-Americans are torn by their fondness for the Clinton
legacy and the possibility that Obama could really be the first
"If he wasn't running, I'd vote for Hillary," Versita Harris, 44, a
mother of three from north St. Louis County.
Like Harris, some of Missouri's senior black politicians find it
hard not to be stirred by Obama's success. Even Cleaver, a Clinton
supporter, confessed to some inner turmoil over Obama's candidacy.
"I don't know if the word is 'conflicted,'" Cleaver said. "I
certainly feel a tinge of pride."
Quianna Pope, 20, of Normandy, said the ideal situation for her
would be if Clinton and Obama shared the ticket. So who would be the
vice presidential candidate?
Pope just shrugged. "I have no idea."