Lost In the Obama Era

Jesse Jackson can still get a crowd going—when he can find one. He appeared at a Los Angeles restaurant this fall, primed to discuss school dropout rates and home foreclosures. But only eight people showed up, mostly reporters. It's no longer Reverend Jackson's day in the sun, or any other black leader's whose name isn't Barack Obama. So where does that leave the leaders to whom black America has long turned in times of crisis—Jackson, and the Revs. Andrew Young and Al Sharpton? At times they can seem like jealous, cranky old men, as in December when Young suggested Bill Clinton was "every bit as black as Barack." Or when Jackson said Obama was "acting white'' by skipping a giant rally for the Jena Six.

But it's not just jealousy. They are also frustrated by mainstream voters' eager embrace of an African-American raised without a traditional African-American experience—who's not, in other words, an "angry black man." Reared in Hawaii by white grandparents, Obama didn't have a family history of segregation and Jim Crow laws. And sources close to all three reverends say the men are hurt that Obama hasn't sought their advice, even privately. (Still, Jackson has endorsed Obama.) The leaders appreciate Obama's dilemma. They know he'd lose many white voters if he reached out to leaders known primarily for advocating black issues. Obama's refrain is that there is just one America. It may be what America wants to hear—but the three lions of the old school couldn't disagree more.