Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are bringing new attention to civil rights and the country's lingering racial divide at a time when black Americans are seeing the best of times and the worst of times.
As the two Democratic candidates fiercely courted black voters in their bid for the White House in Selma, Ala., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced the resignation of its president, Bruce L. Gordon, signaling a leadership rift in America's oldest and largest civil rights organization.
Gordon took the job in June 2005, in part to help repair relations between the NAACP and the Bush administration. But just 19 months later, the 61-year-old former Verizon executive said he stepped down because of differences with the board of directors over direction of the organization.
No surprise, say civil rights experts, as the political landscape has changed dramatically.
Bush's administration is out of favor and Republicans have lost their majority in Congress. A black man is running for president. And the Democratic Party -- riding anti-war sentiment -- is gaining momentum for a presidential win in 2008, putting the key black vote back in play.
The weekend events underscore these contradictory times for many black Americans: They've never had so little and so much. Hurricane Katrina exposed, in the minds of some, America's underbelly of racism and poverty. But observers also contend that never before have blacks enjoyed such political clout.
"Things are as good now as they've ever been," said David Bositis, senior analyst for The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which supports research to improve the socioeconomic status of black Americans.
"You have a black governor in Massachusetts, a Congressional Black Caucus with many members in leadership positions," he said. "They have real power. On the other hand, the Bush presidency has been a catastrophe for blacks."
Social Justice vs. Social Service
Gordon's departure from the NAACP, some say, points to the pivotal issue confronting the group: What is its mission a generation after the major civil rights achievements of the 1960s?
"We want it to be a social justice organization; he [Gordon] wanted it to be more of a social service organization," NAACP Chairman Julian Bond told The New York Times. "Our mission is to fight racial discrimination and provide social justice. Social service organizations deal with the effects of racial discrimination. We deal with the beast itself."
At the time Gordon was picked, the 500,000-member organization had been under fire for revenue shortfalls, stagnant membership and ethical questions.
"The problems facing black America are acute and urgent," Urban League President Marc Morial said in a press release Monday. He pledged to work with "partners in the civil rights community to continue to concentrate on closing disparities in jobs, education and health that still exist across the nation."
Bositis believes the NAACP needed a shake-up at the top -- especially now that black voters are so important to the presidential election.
"I suspect the board was looking for a more activist president -- somebody to be on the political offensive," he said. "It's an entirely different environment now."
The Democratic party is "well-situated" to win back the White House and carry out its promise to close the disparities between blacks and whites, Bositis added.
"Things are changing, not just in black politics, but in progressive politics," he said. "The event that changed it all was Katrina. All of a sudden people began thinking that Katrina was the inner essence of the Bush administration -- not just a few bad actors."
As Bush's fortunes have changed on a dime, so could those of the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton and Obama.
Clinton -- along with husband and former president Bill Clinton -- have enjoyed longtime support from black voters. But some think Obama -- the son of a white mother and a Kenyan father -- could offer voters a face that is not only black, but young.
"Voters are perfectly comfortable with Hillary or Obama -- the issue is which one can win," said Bositis. "They've never had it so good."
Just last month, polls showed for the first time Obama leading Clinton among Democrats among black voters, according to Bositis. Blacks will also look to white voter choices in racially homogenous primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa.
But some African-Americans -- most notably Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who publicly supports Clinton -- are not voting along color lines. And some analysts think baby boomers are distrustful of Obama's lack of experience.
"It's a fascinating time to see the first legitimate candidate of African-American descent run for president," confided one civil servant, a graduate of one of the nation's historically black universities. "But it raises a host of loyalty issues, and I am not sure how I am going to handle it."
What is good for black politics is good for the Democratic party, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
"There is no way in the world that fewer than 85 percent of black Americans are going to vote for Obama in the primaries," she contended.
"The primaries are not just about percentages," she said. "The best thing for the Democratic party is getting African-Americans really excited enough about Obama to increase voter registration and turn out voters. Whether you want him to win or not, he is the most exciting candidate and that will translate to the Democrats."
Harris-Lacewell faults black leaders like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton for not embracing the Obama candidacy early on.
"Jessie and Al: Shut up and do the job," she said. "Stop throwing salt on Barack and stop saying he's insufficiently black. Pull him in now. Bring in the full force of leadership and the organization to turn out voter registration."
Harris-Lacewell warns Clinton's candidacy presents a different set of political problems.
"When you have two presidents, then one son and one wife become president, God help us," said Harris-Lacewell. "When your bench is only two families deep in two decades, you're in a real democratic leadership crisis."
With the election more then one year away, she believes neither Clinton nor Obama will score the nomination; rather it will be an integrated ticket of John Edwards and Obama that can win in key Midwest and Southern states.
"Edwards is in third right now, and a year out, that is the strongest position," said Harris-Lacewell. "The one person who can win is a Southern populist with the perfect wife. And Michelle Obama is the perfect wife for African-American voters."
She also argues the rift at the NAACP was only that, and not an absence of solid black leadership. That, she said is in the hands of a new generation.
In Selma, before churchgoers, Obama invoked a Biblical metaphor, calling on youth to be the "Joshua Generation," a reference to the leader who succeeded Moses.
"Black voters are going to have to face the fact that all the African-Americans over the age of 65 will be dead in the next 20 years," Harris-Lacewell said. "We need continued interest and power in the next generation of African-Americans."