The most amazing thing about the 2008 presidential race is not that a black man is a bona fide contender, but the lukewarm response he has received from the luminaries whose sacrifices made this run possible. With the notable exception of Joseph Lowry, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference veteran who gave a stirring invocation at Obama's Atlanta campaign rally in June and subsequently endorsed him, Obama has been running without much support from many of the most recognizable black figures in the political landscape.
That's because, positioned as he is between the black boomers and the hip-hop generation, Obama is indebted, but not beholden, to the civil rights gerontocracy. A successful Obama candidacy would simultaneously represent a huge leap forward for black America and the death knell for the reign of the civil rights-era leadership -- or at least the illusion of their influence.
Last spring, Al Sharpton cautioned Obama "not to take the black vote for granted." Presumably he meant that the senator had not won over the supposed gatekeepers of the black electorate. Asked why he had not endorsed Obama, Sharpton replied that he would "not be cajoled or intimidated by any candidate." More recently Sharpton claimed on his radio show that the candidates' recent attention to issues of civil rights was a product of pressure from him.
As polls show increasing black support for Obama, Jackson, Sharpton and Young begin to look like a once-wealthy family that has lost its fortune but has to keep spending to maintain appearances. Obama's tepid early showing among blacks in the polls had more to do with name recognition and concerns about his viability as a candidate than with Jackson or Sharpton withholding their endorsement.
Ignoring Sharpton or Jackson is not the same thing as taking the black vote for granted. It is a reasonable calculation that neither of them can deliver many votes and certainly not enough to offset the number of white votes that their approval could lose Obama. Jackson and Sharpton might be holding out for a better deal in exchange for their support, but with Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock among Obama's list of supporters, they have little to bargain with.