If King had lived to age 84 to see this day, "he would take a great deal of pride in watching President Obama raise his hand to take the oath," Mfume speculates. Still, he says King likely also would have been raising his voice on issues of racism and poverty that persist.
Ironies of 'the Obama effect'
One irony of the Obama effect is that it may have been a bigger boon so far for black hopefuls who are Republican, even though the president and the majority of black officeholders and voters are Democratic.
In the face of Obama's success, some GOP leaders have seized opportunities to demonstrate that their party is open to minorities. Mia Love, a small-town mayor running for Congress in Utah last year, won a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in August; the black woman lost narrowly in November. Florida Gov. Rick Scott chose state legislator Jennifer Carroll, also a black woman, as his running mate for lieutenant governor in 2010.
In South Carolina last month, GOP Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Tim Scott, the first black Republican congressman from the state, to the U.S. Senate when DeMint resigned to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"The fact that Tim Scott was picked in South Carolina -- I mean, the Republicans realized that they have a diversity problem, and I think that has been driven home by the coalition the president has put together," says Stu Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. "If (Republican presidential nominee) Mitt Romney had won this time, I don't know that Tim Scott would be in the Senate."
DeMint himself rejects any suggestions of racism in the GOP. "Frankly, I think it's a little bit of the opposite," the former senator said in an interview last week on Capital Download, a weekly video series on usatoday.com. "(When) we get a good, conservative African American running in the Republican Party, it is very welcome."
Scott already is raising money to run in the 2014 special election for the final two years of DeMint's term. That will test whether he can hold white Republican support and persuade some black Democratic voters to cross party lines in the South.
That's another irony: The region where most black voters live is the one where black candidates tend to have the hardest time winning top jobs. "If race weren't an issue in this country, the place you would expect to see African Americans elected to statewide office with African-American votes would be Southern states with large black populations," says David Bositis, an expert on minority voting and representation at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "But it's becoming a white, conservative, Republican-dominated area of the country, which means that African Americans, with a few exceptions, are out in terms of statewide office."
In the South, most African-American candidates are Democrats, most statewide officeholders are Republicans, and the electorate is more sharply polarized along racial lines than other parts of the country. Black legislators in the statehouse and Congress often represent districts that are mostly minority.
That has made it harder for some black officeholders to win bigger offices. "African-American majority districts, whether at the state level or the congressional level, tend to be terrible springboards for minority candidates," says David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "When these members of Congress represent hyper-liberal, hyper-minority districts, they're speaking to one audience. They're not getting the experience they need to speak with voters of varied ideological persuasions."
The states where black candidates tend to fare best include some with few black voters. Massachusetts, which in 2010 became the first state to re-elect a black governor, is just 7% African American, according to the Census.
The population of Denver, where Michael Hancock won election in 2010 to become the city's second black mayor, is 12% black. "On the local level, we're making tremendous progress," Hancock says. "We can find African-American elected officials even in non-African-American communities across the nation, Denver being one. But on the state level, we're still challenged with African Americans being elected to the U.S. Senate and to the governor's office."
Fundraising 'a big factor'
A rising generation of African-American officeholders is preparing to run for those jobs next year.
In New Jersey, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, 43, has taken initial steps to run in 2014 for the U.S. Senate. The seat is held by Frank Lautenberg, although the 89-year-old incumbent, a fellow Democrat, hasn't said whether he plans to retire.
In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is raising money to run for governor in 2014, an essential that he says remains hard for black candidates. "If you look at fundraising ability, you'll see a real disparity," he says. "That's a big factor."
Even so, he says, black politicians including himself are able to aspire to the highest jobs. "Is President Obama's presidency leading a trend or the result of a trend?" he asks. "It's probably a little bit of both."
Mfume was one of three credible black candidates who sought U.S. Senate seats in 2006 -- Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Harold Ford in Tennessee and Mfume in Maryland. None of them prevailed. In 2010, Kendrick Meek won the Democratic nomination for the Senate in Florida, though he ended up finishing third to Republican Marco Rubio and independent Charlie Crist.
"I think the Obama election in many ways parallels the election of Jack Kennedy," says Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State College. "Kennedy demonstrated that a Catholic could win, and then Catholics began to run." (Since Kennedy, however, no Catholic has won the White House.)
"The fact that a black man ran and was elected and was re-elected even in difficult times has to change a little bit of the national psyche about who can win and who can't," Rothenberg says. "It's tinkered with the conventional wisdom about black candidates in general."
The biggest Obama effect might be on children, black and white, whose formative memories will be of having an African-American president. For them, presumably, that seems unremarkable.
"For many, many young people, their experiences in grade school shape the decisions and beliefs about their future more than any other time or point in their lives," Brown says. His son was 8 years old when they went to watch Obama's inauguration four years ago. "He wasn't asking how was that possible," Brown recalls. "He just accepts that it is."
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